California’s facing a big fight in the legislature over the fees community colleges are planning to charge for online courses. The problem first came about in June after a student at Foothill Community College demanded a refund for the extra $78 he had to pay for an online math class, in addition to the $85 he had to pay just to register for the class.

That’s because under state law any fees for instruction must result in “tangible personal property.” The $75 fee was illegal because it merely allowed students to access material for a semester; they couldn’t download the material for future reference.

And so California tried to change the law. It’s not working out so well. According to an article by Nanette Asimov in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Efforts to quickly legalize student access fees for community college cyber-classes – fees that are banned by state law but which may be rampant across California campuses – have hit a snag in the state Capitol.

Darrell Steinberg, president pro tem of the state Senate, has strongly criticized a recent recommendation by a community college task force to change state law to permit such fees, which are charged by publishers capitalizing on the explosive popularity of online courses. The problem, he told community college leaders, is that the group met behind closed doors, was heavily weighted with publishers, and failed to disclose conflicts of interest.

That’s because the fees essentially cover the cost of accessing proprietary software. While this software is arguably better, since it’s often capable of providing instant feedback on learning, it’s not necessarily better than open source, free online curricula. Many legislators argue that’s precisely the sort of resources California community colleges should use. They should not be charging students extra to use material produced and sold by publishers.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer