California to schools: Students don’t have to pay for graduation attire, other items ‘integral’ to education

When thousands of seniors in the Elk Grove area receive their high school diplomas in the coming weeks, some will wear caps and gowns free of charge.

Parents have long shelled out money for caps and gowns, along with yearbooks and grad-night tickets, to help celebrate the end of high school. But for the first time, the state has called on school districts to provide graduation attire at no cost to students or their families if required during the diploma ceremony.

The guidance stems from a new California law, which took effect last year and strengthened a prohibition on charging fees for integral parts of public education.

In the last 12 months, activists and parents across California have filed scores of state appeals challenging districts that require families to pay for such items as Advanced Placement exams, classroom supplies, workbooks and uniforms. Supporters say the new law ensures that low-income students have access to the same essential campus activities as their peers.

Knowledgeable parents are testing the law’s boundaries. In the San Juan Unified School District, several people challenged schools for posting supply lists last summer, taking aim at the backpack and binder shopping trips that have long been a back-to-school hallmark.

One of them, Patrick Donnelly of Rancho Cordova, complained in August after the Gold River Discovery Center sent home a list of classroom supplies children would need for the year, including boxes of facial tissue, binders with ruled paper, pencils and pens. The list of supplies, he said, cost him between $70 and $100.

In response, the school and San Juan Unified added online disclaimers noting that Gold River would provide necessary materials to children who don’t bring their own. The lists are suggestions, they said, not required for students’ full participation. But those disclaimers did not appear until the start of the school year.

San Juan Unified spokesman Trent Allen said several parents elsewhere in the district had complained about the supply lists, so the district began adding the disclaimers to all school websites.

Donnelly opted not to appeal to the state. But he noted that the eleventh-hour postings were of “little to no benefit for the thousands of parents who already made supply purchases under misleading pretenses by the school and district.” He said in an email that updating the website only two days before the start of school was “obviously inadequate.”

“In essence, the school and district got a $1 million-plus subsidy from the parents of 42,000 students,” he said.

The Elk Grove Unified School District was among the earliest in Sacramento to embrace the state’s graduation missive, telling parents in a Jan. 25 letter to contact their principal if they choose not to buy a cap and gown or if they’re concerned about the cost of money already spent.

Stacey Ting, co-president of the Laguna Creek High School Parent-Teacher-Student Organization in Elk Grove, said it makes sense for students to borrow graduation attire. She said she’s not sure why anyone would want to keep a gown – unless it’s for a costume party.

On the other hand, she wondered whether additional district costs for caps and gowns would siphon money from academic programs. “Schools are strapped for curriculum as it is,” she said.

Angie Poindexter said she purchased her son’s cap, gown and tassel for $28 about a month ago, even though she knew they would be available to borrow through the district.

“I purchased it just because I did it for my oldest son,” she said. “With my first son, we had to buy it. I don’t remember being given the (no-pay) option.”

She treasured and saved her own cap and gown, she said.

Some large districts in the Sacramento region did not know about the state Department of Education policy on caps and gowns. But each said they have offered caps and gowns for years to students who could not afford their own. Under the new state guidance, however, no student is required to show financial need to get a loaner.

In August 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union released its “Pay to Learn” report documenting dozens of cases in which California school districts violated the state constitution by requiring students to pay fees for tests, workbooks, science labs, physical education uniforms, lab fees, art supplies and more.

A month later, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against the state. That litigation was resolved in 2012 when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1575 by then-Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, giving parents and guardians the ability to appeal district decisions.

Since the law went into effect last year, 147 appeals have been filed with the state, including six in Sacramento County naming San Juan, Elk Grove and Sacramento City unified school districts, according to state records.

All but two of the Sacramento County appeals were filed by Sally Smith, a San Diego lawyer who has no children in the area. She said in an interview she has filed more than 200 complaints against school districts in California.

Smith said she became impassioned about the issue when her children, now in their 20s, were in school. Every year, she said, they would regularly come home with teachers’ notes asking for money or supplies.

“Somehow teachers got past asking for voluntary donations and just had the mindset that it was an entitlement,” she said. “I’m a lawyer, and I started questioning this.”

Smith complained to the Sacramento City district, for example, that McClatchy High School was asking students to pay for caps and gowns, among other costs. The district rejected the claim, and Smith has filed an appeal to the state.

Gabe Ross, spokesman for Sacramento City schools, said the district does follow state law. “While we do not require people to purchase caps and gowns,” he said, “we know that many choose to do so.”

The Elk Grove Unified School District in July also rejected Smith’s claim, and the state eventually closed the file. The state denied Smith’s two other appeals.

In another case, an anonymous Northern California resident succeeded in having the state set a deadline for refunds to San Juan district parents who bought supplies for their children at the behest of Arlington Heights Elementary School in Citrus Heights.

After getting the initial complaint, the school modified language on the website “to clearly indicate items would be provided and that the lists are distributed for those who wish to purchase for themselves or make donations,” San Juan spokesman Allen said.

The anonymous complainant, however, filed a second appeal on the case to the state Department of Education stating that the district had not fully complied.

Allen said the school had not offered refunds to every family that bought supplies. The Education Department gave the district until the end of April to provide such reimbursements.

“We have now issued a notice to all families at the school via written letter, school newsletters and the school’s website alerting families and instructing them to call the school office if they would like to file a claim for reimbursement,” Allen said.

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