The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District must pay a total of $10,000 to two parents who sued the district for allegedly forcing students to buy their own educational materials, violating a constitutional guarantee to a free education.
Attorney Kevin Shenkman initiated the class-action lawsuit in 2017 on behalf of parents Vivian Mahl and Gina de Baca, claiming SMMUSD requires students to pay for expensive calculators, field trips and athletic uniforms. Shenkman is also suing the City of Santa Monica for violating the California Voting Rights Act.
The district and the plaintiffs reached a settlement Thursday that requires SMMUSD to reimburse families for supplies they have purchased that the district is obligated to provide, publish “free school guarantee” notices in course descriptions and syllabi, and pay $575,000 in attorneys’ and court fees to the plaintiffs.
“We’re very pleased that this settlement provides that the district will fully remedy its past violations of students’ constitutional right to a free public education and will in the future abide by the law,” Shenkman said.
Mahl and de Baca will each receive $5,000.
“The $5,000 corresponds to their work in bringing this to our attention and their helping us on the case,” Shenkman said. “It’s also just a general incentive for people to bring unlawful actions to the attention of the courts.”
Lawsuits of this nature are not uncommon. In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state of California because it found that more than 50 school district in the state required students to pay for textbooks, arts supplies and physical education uniforms, flouting the California Constitution’s guarantee to a free public education.
When SMMUSD was first served with the lawsuit, district spokesperson Gail Pinsker said such materials are only suggested, not required, and that teachers typically have accommodations for students who cannot afford them.
Pinker said SMMUSD has maintained a complaint process for parents who believe they have been charged educational fees since the ACLU reached its 2010 settlement with the state of California that requires districts to reimburse families for illegal fees.
The Superior Court of California for the County of Los Angeles will not rule on whether SMMUSD did, in fact, violate the state constitution because the two parties reached a settlement before the case went to trial.
The settlement includes a court order prohibiting the district from violating the free school guarantee for five years from the date the settlement is finalized, which Shenkman expects will be in early 2020. Parents can bring any possible violations to a neutral referee.
Parents who have already been required to purchase educational materials will be able to apply for reimbursement from the district.
Shenkman said he hopes other school districts in California take note of the settlement.
“I have plenty of sympathy for underfunded school districts in California, but they need to stop violating the free school guarantee and not leave certain kids behind,” he said.
SMMUSD could not be reached for comment by press time.