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Editorial: ACLU suit may be costlier than we think

September 17, 2010

The lawsuit filed against the state by the American Civil Liberties Union highlights what most people already know: Public education is no free ride.

Fees for band uniforms and sports tournaments have long been in place, but over the years, they have spread to more and more aspects of school life — lab materials, supplemental books, rentals, field trips and extracurricular activities. It's no coincidence that these fees have propagated to fill the void left behind by the receding waters of state education funding.

To argue it's unfair to charge students to play in band, or keep up with their colleagues in show choir, sounds fine, but then we must consider where else the money will come from. Certainly, Sacramento's chokehold on education funding shows no signs of loosening up, and the cost of playing sports, servicing band instruments, sending choirs to out-of-town competitions, or supplying cooking classes will only continue to increase.

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The ACLU argues the school fees violate the state's constitutional guarantee to a free and equal education for all students, and has spurred some districts to re-evaluate their systems, including Burbank Unified, where Burroughs High School was among other campuses cited in the lawsuit.

As the income and cost lines continue to diverge, the community is faced with the decision: Either keep the status quo, or find an alternative, and alternatives have always been a tough sell.

Parcel taxes and bonds make many property owners cringe, but they remain the most potent forms of funding for school districts outside of what they get from Sacramento. Outside of that realm, the idea of pushing the community to donate or fundraise to make up the difference has been floated, but as some in the parent community have pointed out, that would put school programs in direct competition with other causes like homelessness, food banks and subsidized child care — all formidable with established donor bases.

Given the success Burbank schools have shown in the creative arts and sports realm, it would behoove us to support their continued growth, but to do so, a serious conversation needs to be had about how to do it. Relying on private donations carries the risk of tying these programs to the same ups and downs as state funding (albeit more down than up). It's time to consider a more stable, local source of money. What form that takes will depend in large part on the leadership and ingenuity of district leaders.

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