Friday, August 19, 2011

No More Pencils, No More Books, ACLU Says Schools Are Crooks

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
As the new school year begins, teachers are printing their syllabi and informing their students that their success depends on coming to class prepared each day with the basic supplies like pens, pencils, notebooks and calculators.

This expectation by teachers may now be illegal in California, as a result of an ACLU lawsuit last year which prohibits schools from charging fees for required course materials and activities.

The ACLU investigated numerous California schools and found that there were “no truly free schools” (according to their blog), as required by California law. School routinely charge fees for labs and art and shop classes, require students to purchase workbooks or gym uniforms, and make students pay for extracurricular activities.

The ACLU based its suit in part on the Hartzell v. Connell state Supreme Court ruling (1984), which said that the “financial burden which may be imposed on the right to an education [is] none.”

Taken to its literal extreme, teachers and schools would be prohibited from requiring students to purchase anything that is necessary for school, including basic supplies like binders, pens and calculators. Aside from the fact that schools can no longer afford nurses and librarians, let alone office supplies for every one of their students, the ruling could worsen the already anti-academic cultures prevalent in some schools, in which preparedness, self-discipline and organization are not only lacking but disdained by students. If schools cannot ask students to purchase binders or pens and do not provide them, some students simply won’t bring them and will sit passively or goof off rather than participating in class activities.

To their credit, the ACLU did uncover numerous egregious examples of abusive policies that would truly deny lower income students equity in educational opportunities, such as high fees for Advanced Placement supplies. They also claimed that some teachers humiliated students by ridiculing them for not buying the right supplies. Obviously, such practices should not be tolerated. However, it is not unreasonable to ask students to come to school prepared each day with basic materials like pens and notebooks. Schools routinely make these materials available for students who have trouble obtaining them. And it should not be a burden or an embarrassment for students to obtain these materials from their schools, especially when arrangements can be made nonjudgmentally, in private, and outside of class time.

While the ACLU’s website acknowledged that the problem is due in part to declining school revenue and government dysfunction, it ignored the fact that youth poverty has been growing and is the number one cause of low student achievement. Giving every child a binder will not bring up test scores or graduation rates, but ending childhood poverty will. Of course this is much harder to litigate (and legislate). Thus, teachers and schools are yet again blamed and saddled with additional burdens, while society and the politicians get another free ride.

The ACLU also correctly asserts that declining revenue does not justify schools resorting to illegal or unfair means of raising money. However, the abuses they have documented, likewise, do not justify mandating an end to reasonable expectations of student preparedness for school.

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