In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the California Department of Education for failing to provide students with a free education, as required by law. Due to the outcome of this lawsuit, students now cannot be charged any fees for regular curricular and extracurricular activities and materials, including sports uniforms, textbooks and educational field trips. Schools and classes can hold fundraisers, but students cannot be required to participate in, promote or assist with them, and teachers cannot offer extra credit for anything that costs money, whether donated Kleenex, canned food for the food drive, or a review of a performance with an entrance fee. Students can be charged fines if they fail to return school-loaned materials, but they cannot be charged a security deposit in advance.
I fully support the spirit of the lawsuit, which was intended to shift the burden of educational costs from parents -- who have such unequal advantages and opportunities -- to the state, which should offer the same advantages and opportunities to all.
However, the lawsuit missed a crucial detail. Because it did not force the state to provide money to districts to make up for the loss of student fees, we in education are now left wondering who will pay for daily, necessary materials. Lab fees for science, art or cooking classes may have seemed like an attempt to gouge parents, but most current department budgets barely cover the cost of
Without taxpayer funding, many teachers -- most of whom are already looking at reduced paychecks because of furlough days -- are forced to choose between spending their own money on materials their students need or cutting back on the experiences they offer in the classroom.
Teachers still issue school supply lists at the beginning of each year, but depending on how strictly districts interpret the law, many teachers must now label their lists "recommended," not "required," with no penalty for students who can't -- or won't -- buy their own. This isn't a problem in affluent districts, but in low-income areas, the number of students who don't bring materials, while still a minority, can be surprisingly high.
Of course, such students must still be included in classroom activities. So who picks up the tab for their materials? The current answer is the teacher. School districts, reeling from years of cuts, can't find extra funds to provide school supplies when they've decreased school days and support staff while increasing class sizes.
Many teachers are already supplementing school budgets by buying copy paper, white board markers, printer ink and more. We simply can't afford to also be the supply store for the five or six students per class (25 to 30 total for the average high school teacher) who never bring materials to school.
Personally, I'm frustrated by the number of students who have smartphones yet are constantly asking for school supplies. Are they really too poor to buy paper and pen, or too irresponsible? Yet I certainly don't have the right to ask them to prove their poverty before I give them the materials to participate in the day's lesson.
Gov. Jerry Brown's current educational funding proposals may bring more money to low-income districts, but school supplies are just one item near the end of a long list of priorities for that funding to address. The ACLU had the right idea, but the lawsuit has simply added to the pressures for teachers in low-income schools. As schools plan their budgets for next year, we should all be thinking about the value and cost of education -- and who should pay for it.
Jennifer Black is a teacher in San Jose's East Side Union High School District. She wrote this for this newspaper.