UPDATE: ACLJ Directly Engages Arizona School District for Charging Our Clients Extra for Classroom Access During School Hours in Pandemic
Today, the ACLJ took action in Arizona: We sent a legal letter to an Arizona school district on behalf of our clients, providing our perspective on what the state’s constitution and laws require: “absolutely free” education and classroom access. As we’ve told you, the ACLJ recently launched a new initiative to support and expand school choice and advance educational justice for all children. We must ensure that kids are not shortchanged out of educational opportunities due to the current health crisis. With many schools remaining shuttered for the time being, the additional burden of at-home, virtual learning has been dropped squarely on parents’ shoulders. Households where mom and dad both work, or single parent families, are desperately trying to figure out how they’re going to juggle the two highest priorities in their lives – caring for their children and working to support them – simultaneously. We’re trying to help them find solutions to care for their kids and provide them with adequate educational opportunities. What we didn’t anticipate was some public schools telling parents that while it’s not safe for their children to return to school due to the Coronavirus, they can come to the SAME BUILDINGS as a “childcare” center . . . for an additional fee. Public schools in Arizona are doing just that. Multiple school districts in the state, including the Gilbert Public Schools (GPS) – made up of 39 individual schools from Kindergarten through High School – have notified parents that schools will not be opening as planned this fall, and their children must participate in virtual learning until on-campus learning is cleared to resume. However, they are offering a temporary daily “childcare” service for students in Kindergarten through 8th Grade, held inside 9 of the district’s elementary schools, for a cost of $160 per child for the week. That’s right: schools that have been deemed unsafe for students and teachers to attend for normal taxpayer-funded classes are somehow perfectly fine for childcare if you pay extra. If a family has three children, that’s nearly $500 out of pocket for one week, on top of the taxes they’re already paying that support these schools. And based on the last few months, it seems very likely the closures will continue to be extended, as will those fees. But there’s even more to it than that. The “GPS Childcare” program will occur in the Gilbert Public Schools classrooms, will have a “curriculum,” and will have “online coursework completion and support.” Whatever you call this – and we think it sure sounds like “school” or “education” – the net result on parents is the same: they must pay for their child to have classroom access on school premises during school hours. It’s not fair. And as we explain in our letter , it may even violate the Arizona constitution and statutory requirements. Parents rely on schools to not only teach their children and give them access to necessary tools like computers and Internet access, but also to provide a safe place for them during the day. These Arizona schools know that, and we’re urging them to eliminate or reduce the fee for providing this critical service. The ACLJ has already been contacted by over 1,300 individual families around the country for assistance as the new school year rapidly approaches. We are working to represent families, free of charge, to ensure that students are not left behind and that parents are given educational options – especially during this pandemic. We are not demanding schools be reopened. If there’s a real danger, then they must remain closed until it is safe. However, our legal team is working with individual families to determine their needs going into the school year, and we will be reaching out to school districts and local governments – just like we did today – urging them to make accommodations. Our tax money goes to pay for these schools, for teachers’ salaries, for special education programs, for essential equipment like computers, laptops, and tablets, as well as Internet connectivity – things many American homes do not have. And countless children rely on the food service provided by their schools. What we see happening in Arizona, offering those families childcare (or online education in the classroom) at an additional price, is unacceptable. Using the resources available to offer childcare during this tough time is one thing. But to take the people’s tax dollars, not provide the intended service, AND then demand more money to provide an alternative service is just plain wrong. It should stop immediately. Our legal team is reviewing the situation and will be prepared to take further legal action if necessary. This moment in history requires creative solutions on everyone’s part. We’re having to think outside of the box as lawyers, but I also think school districts need to be thinking outside of the box as well. We’re simply stating the obvious: if school districts are unable to provide traditional public education because of the pandemic, then they need to come up with creative alternatives (not charge more money) to help ensure that students come first and that parents have educational options and the resources they need to provide the best education for their children. At the end of the day, that’s what we should all want, what’s best for our children; and parents are the ones who are best equipped to make those decisions. We applaud Gilbert Public Schools’ efforts to provide a solution. We just want to work with them to provide this kind of solution free of charge. That’s at the heart of school choice, and it is something for which the ACLJ will continue to fight – for greater options for parents of students until every child has equal access to a quality education. UPDATE 08.02.2020: The ACLJ has just sent a legal letter representing a second client to the same Arizona school district regarding this matter. We are calling for a response by Monday, August 3 rd . UPDATE 08.03.2020: The ACLJ just sent a third legal letter to the Gilbert Public Schools Superintendent, and now a letter to the entire school board, representing our clients. We have again requested a response by Monday, August 3rd ensuring that our clients’ children will not be charged extra to have classroom access during normal school hours. UPDATE 08.04.2020: The ACLJ continues to negotiate with GPS on behalf of our clients. Today, we sent GPS's attorney a letter in the hopes of resolving the issues so that our clients' children may access the GPS classrooms free of charge during school hours for help with their online coursework.