Nan Austin

Back-to-school buying can be fun, cannot be forced

Students play basketball during gym class at Turlock Junior High last year. Most families buy gym clothes, but schools cannot make kids purchase necessary supplies to take part in any class.
Students play basketball during gym class at Turlock Junior High last year. Most families buy gym clothes, but schools cannot make kids purchase necessary supplies to take part in any class. Modesto Bee file

With the start of the school year, many parents will have moments when they wonder just how free their children’s free public education really is.

Buying that fundraiser frozen cookie dough and wrapping paper is all on you.

But California courts have ruled against schools charging for kids to participate in class activities – a school can ask for a donation, but that’s it. It cannot ban kids from field trips, kick them out of gym class or not count their homework because of a money issue.

A caller brought up the subject, asking about back-to-school lists she saw at stores and sent home from schools. “Do parents really have to buy all that?”

Nope.

What the stores would like to sell, or suggestions from a teacher, carry no weight beyond the wish.

To be sure, if a third-grader wants a special, spangly pink binder or scented felt pens, that falls to the parents to purchase. But paper, pencils, basic art materials “and other necessary supplies for the use of the schools,” has to be provided, according to court readings of the California Constitution.

According to advisories put out by the state Department of Education, this means schools cannot charge to participate in courses or extracurricular activities, even if the event is an elective, even if it is not for credit.

Students cannot be required to give a security deposit or any other payment for a lock, locker, book, class apparatus (this includes computers), musical instrument, uniform or other materials or equipment they need.

Kids do not have to pay for cloth to complete mandatory projects in sewing class or required safety gear in shop class. But if students intend to keep the pants sewed, the shop project completed or have nicer safety goggles, then they have to buy their own.

Gym clothes for physical education class are also on the list. The school legally has to provide whatever workout wear they require, but traditionally families buy those items and take ownership.

The same goes for extracurricular sports uniforms, which can get very pricey. I only had to buy swimsuits, goggles and swim parkas for my two youngest. But when my wheelchair rider rolled out with pom-poms in hand to yell for Ustach Middle School teams, I found out the appalling price of cheer gear and it is much higher now – hundreds, people, hundreds.

The bottom line is the school cannot make kids pay to participate – even in sports. But did I want my daughter rolling out there without a Kodiak on her chest like the other girls? Of course not.

There sits the dilemma. Low-income parents do not want their kids to look out of step or out of fashion, either. In fact, not looking like the odd-man-out may well be something that matters far more to them than to folks who can afford to pay, and therefore can afford not to worry about it.

It’s what keeps me chipping in for cookie dough and wrapping paper, pitching in for class supplies. I hope it helps a teacher or a team not to have to ask parents for more.

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