The Unguarded Hen House

A district may not require students to purchase a cap and gown as a condition of participating in the graduation ceremony.”

-California Department of Education, 2013


“All students who participate in the ceremony must wear a cap and gown. After January 31, 2015, caps and gowns are $60.00 (CASH ONLY) and are only available at Senior Clearance on June 3, 2015.”

-Granada Hills Charter High School

California taxpayers spend more than $3 billion to privately operated charter schools every year. This money is supposed to be used to educate our children in a way that is consistent with the law, but there is little assurance that the money diverted from public schools is benefiting the students. Charter schools were supposed to bring more accountability to education, but local, county and state agencies lack either the tools or the will to provide the necessary oversight. This creates a situation where these schools are permitted to operate outside the boundaries of the law.

Like their public school counterparts, charter schools in California are prohibited from charging their students “a pupil fee...for participation in an educational activity.” When I realized that Granada Hills Charter High School’s cap and gown fee was a violation of this law, I notified them of the problem. While they did agree to refund the fee that I had paid, they refused to change their policies so that all parents would be made aware that caps and gowns would be provided without charge. To make matters worse, they announced that contrary to the law, they would charge students $30 for tickets over their allotment of four. Clearly, it was going to take an outside force to ensure their compliance with the law.

I first contacted the LAUSD about these issues on May 8. While the district had just increased the budget so that their schools could comply with this law, the charter division was unfamiliar with the requirements and I had to send them the state’s advisory on the issue. A few days later, I forwarded the specialist a link to a story that KNBC had run about violations of the cap and gown law. He promised to bring my concerns to the school, but emphasized that he did not have the power to force them to change the policy. When I unexpectedly received a refund in the mail for the cap and gown fee, I suspected that the specialist had kept his word. Unfortunately, this did not resolve the issue for the 1,000 other parents who had paid the fee.

With graduation quickly approaching I contacted the California Department of Education to see if they could intervene. The person at their charter division confirmed that students could not be charged for a cap and gown and felt that charging for tickets to the graduation was “probably” also a violation. Unfortunately, she also stated that the department lacked any “police powers” and directed me to the Los Angeles County Office of Education, who did have the ability to investigate.

At first the county’s Charter School Office tried to direct me back to the LAUSD, but after further review decided that I would have to file a formal complaint directly with the school. If I was unsatisfied with their response I could then appeal to the...California Department of Education. I had entered an infinite loop of educational bureaucracy. She did, however, offer to speak to both the LAUSD and the state to find out if a solution could be worked out informally.

The next day I finally heard back from the specialist at the LAUSD’s charter division. He found that contrary to the paperwork I had forwarded to him, Granada did not require students to purchase a cap and gown. He based this finding on a Cap and Gown Return form that was suddenly posted online. He found that this was a good enough effort to comply with the law even though it did not inform parents that the school was not allowed to charge for graduation attire, did not specify how they could get a refund and charged $40.00 more than the highest quoted purchase price if the borrowed cap and gown was not returned.

The specialist also found that charging $30.00 for graduation tickets did not violate the law. This was especially interesting given that I had provided him with a link to a school run by the Los Angeles County Office of Education. This school maintains that “the practice of charging students to attend graduation or to purchase cap and gown violates the California Education Code 49010-49011” because doing so “creates a two-tiered system -- those who can afford to purchase additional seats and have a different educational experience vs. those who cannot.”

In last month’s election, charter schools spent over $2 million to remove their harshest critic from the LAUSD School Board and replace him with someone from their ranks. If the election of  Ref Rodriguez results in even less oversight of charter schools, these schools will have little incentive to follow the rules. In this type of a situation why should the taxpayers have any confidence that the billions that they have provided were spent appropriately?