Idaho Grandparents Challenge Fees for ‘Free’ Public Schools

Published October 23, 2012

A group of grandparents is suing Idaho and all its school districts over a fees these charge their grandchildren to attend “free, common schools.” Leading the charge is Russ Joki, an Idaho superintendent from 1980 to 1985. He had to pay $90 to enroll his two granddaughters in kindergarten in 2012. Joki had to pay $85 in fees to register his grandson at Meridian High School.

Anecdotal evidence suggests this practice is increasing nationwide, but precise figures are hard to come by, said Joshua Dunn, a political science professor at the University of Colorado­—Colorado Springs.

“[M]ost of the time the fees are for things that the school district can say aren’t part of providing a basic education,” Dunn explained. “Doing that allows them to avoid some of the legal challenges…since they can say this isn’t part of what the state constitution requires.”

Reports have documented instances of public schools charging parents in at least nine states besides Idaho. The Wall Street Journal documented districts in Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, and Ohio charging fees for registration, lockers, student identification cards, technology access, graduation, and courses and activities ranging from $110 at one Illinois elementary school up to $261 at a Kansas high school. Miscellaneous and extra-curricular fees are also common.

Constitutional Violation
Field trips, art supplies, and snacks were among items Joki’s granddaughters’ school charged to him. His grandson’s registration charge covered chemistry, art, and sports medicine class fees, and $10 in unspecified 11th grade class dues.

A 1970 Idaho Supreme Court case, Paulson v. Minidoka County School District ruled that the district could not charge students a $12.50 textbook fee.

“The appellants may not charge students for such items because the common schools are to be ‘free’ as our constitution requires,” the court ruled.

More than 280,000 students and thousands more of their parents and guardians are part of the class action. If it succeeds, school districts must refund or the state must appropriate money to pay the previous year’s public school fees, an estimated $2 million.

Against School Supply Lists
Along with registration fees, Idaho public schools require students’ parents and guardians to purchase specific brands of school supplies. “It’s occurring statewide,” Joki told the Spokesman Review. “These supply lists substitute for essential educational materials the district needs to provide.”

The lists amount to a state-endorsed “essential consumable supply curriculum,” said Robert Huntley, the attorney representing Joki. The lists mislead parents and guardians into believing supply lists are constitutionally allowable, and the practice “feeds on social pressure to enforce,” Huntley said in an amended court filing.

Fees Just the Beginning
On October 9, Huntley added a to the suit, claiming the Idaho legislature has not fulfilled a 2005 State Supreme Court ruling requiring the state to provide sufficient funding to maintain state school buildings uniformly.

The legislature created a $25 million loan fund in 2006 to match school levies for repairs. Subsequent legislation diminished schools’ taxing authority and increased school spending reliance on sales taxes, which fluctuate more than property.

“School funding in Idaho has been deteriorating and diminishing for the past 20 years. We are reaching a crises stage affecting quality and we are permanently damaging the future of the teaching profession,” said Huntley. 

Litigating ‘Adequacy’
California narrowly avoided a similar lawsuit this year by enacting a new law in September that guides schools how to fundraise constitutionally and how state officials can stop illegal fees without going to court.

Forty years ago, the California Supreme Court issued its Serrano v. Priest school funding lawsuit decision, which inspired similar lawsuits nationwide. Since then, most state legislatures have adopted equalized school financing systems.

Even so, school funding lawsuits persist.

“Some school districts, not only in Idaho but across the country, instead of cutting back in the light of economic conditions, are just finding new ways to squeeze money out of Idaho school patrons,” said Wayne Hoffman, executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. “No amount of money is ever enough. Parents are understandably frustrated with districts that keep asking for more and more, leaving those parents with less and less to spend for the education and care of their children.” 

Image by S. Jelan.