1879 – The California Constitution provision known as the “free school guarantee” was adopted in its current form – “The Legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district at least six months in every year, after the first year in which a school has been established.” (Ca. Constitution, Article IX, Section 5).
1940 – The State Board of Education adopted a regulation designed to implement the “free school guarantee,” which states, in full: “A pupil enrolled in a school shall not be required to pay any fee, deposit, or other charge not specifically authorized by law.” (Title 5, California Code of Regulations (CCR), § 350).
1942 – The California Attorney General issued an opinion stating, among other things, that school districts may not require security deposits for locks, lockers, books, class apparatus, musical instruments, uniforms, or other equipment, and that students may not be required to pay a membership fee in any student body organization as a condition of participation in curricular or extracurricular activities. The Attorney General also concluded that all “necessary school supplies” for a course or course of study must be provided by the school district. The Attorney General distinguished necessary supplies from those that are needed regardless of whether or not the person is a student – e.g. glasses, clothes, etc. (Ops.Ca.Atty.Gen. No. NS-4114).
1979 – The California Legislative Counsel issued an opinion interpreting the 1940 State Board regulation (Title 5, CCR § 350), concluding that fees for musical instruments used in extracurricular band, special uniforms used in extracurricular activities, club dues, and extracurricular athletic teams violate Section 350 and the “free school guarantee.” (Ops.Cal.Leg.Counsel No. 17036 [November 16, 1979]).
1979 – The California Department of Education (CDE) issued a position paper stating that requiring membership fees as a condition of participation in athletics or other educational activities violates the “free school” guarantee as applied by Title 5, CCR section 350. (CDE Guidance on Fees, Deposits and Charges in the Public Schools).
1982 – The California Legislative Counsel issued another opinion interpreting Title 5, CCR section 350, concluding that fees for school-sponsored extracurricular activities are unconstitutional. The opinion stated that even though such programs are not required by law, “once the programs are provided, the governing board has no authority to impose a fee, charge or deposit for the program.” (Ops.Cal.Leg.Counsel No. 18293 [October 13, 1982]).
1984 – The California Supreme Court decided Hartzell v. Connell, a challenge to the imposition of fees for extra-curricular activities by a public school district, imposed by a district to address a funding shortage due to declining enrollment and the passage of Proposition 13. (35 Cal.3d 899). The Court concluded that the “free school guarantee” extends to all programs that are “educational in character,” and that extracurricular activities such as sports, drama, vocal and instrumental music programs are “educational in character.” The Court stated that “the free school guarantee reflects the people’s judgment that a child’s public education is too important to be left to the budgetary circumstances and decisions of individual families.” The Court also concluded that:
• An activity need not result in course credit to be “educational in character.”
• A waiver process based on financial need or inability to pay does not make an otherwise impermissible fee permissible.
• Title 5, CCR section 350 is a reasonable interpretation of the “free school guarantee,” and a valid exercise of authority of the State Board of Education.
• The Legislative Counsel and CDE opinions addressed above were accurate summaries of the law.
1992 – The California Supreme Court concluded, in Arcadia Unified SD v. State Department of Education, that a state law authorizing the charging of transportation fees does not violate the “free school guarantee,” because transportation is not an educational activity and the law contains a waiver provision for indigent students. (2 Cal.4th 251).
1992 – A California appellate court concluded, in Driving School Assn. of Ca. v. San Mateo Union High SD, that a high school district does not have the authority to charge high school students under 18 a fee for driver training courses offered through the district’s adult education program, despite the existence of a statutory authorization to charge fees for adult school classes. (11 Cal.App.4th 1513).
1994 – A California appellate court concluded, in Ca. Assn. for Safety Education v. Brown, that fees charged to students for driver training violate the “free school guarantee.” (30 Cal.App.4th 1264).
1997 – The California Attorney General issued an opinion concluding that a school district may not require the parents of students with unexcused absences to reimburse the district for its reduction in state funding caused by the unexcused absences. (80 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 107).
1997 – The CDE issued a further position paper regarding fees, updating it in the wake of Hartzell and Arcadia, and reinforcing the 1942 Attorney General opinion. (CDE Guidance on Fees, Deposits and Charges in the Public Schools, Advisory 97-02).
1998 – The California Attorney General issued an opinion concluding that a school district may refuse to use school funds to pay for the annual cleaning and repair of football equipment if the funds to purchase the equipment were raised through private, voluntary donations. (81 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 153).
2004 – The California Attorney General issued an opinion concluding that a school district may not charge a $20 application fee to cover the costs of processing an interdistrict attendance request submitted by a student from another school district, because the fee is not authorized by a statute and therefore violates Title 5, CCR section 350. (87 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen 132).
2012 - AB 1575 passed to protect every student's right to a free education. Complaints now subject to a modified Uniform Complaint process.