Before Peyton Lee Gifford-Joki began his junior year, Russell and Kathleen Joki paid Meridian High School $85 on their grandson’s behalf.
The fees, which covered everything from class dues to chemistry lab to art and pottery classes, are by no means unusual. Which is why Russell and Kathleen Joki took the matter to District Court last week.
They are among a group of 18 parents and grandparents who signed a class-action lawsuit protesting the school fees.
Considered at face value, this lawsuit centers on an estimated $2,378,482 in fees paid this school year. But in the big picture, the plaintiffs are really challenging the way the state pays for education — and the way those costs are moved around.
This dispute can be summed up in one sentence of the lawsuit: “The great majority of Idaho’s school districts, being grossly underfunded by the state Legislature, have been engaging in the practice of levying fees upon the students and their families for various supplies and coursework, elective and otherwise, in violation of the Idaho Constitution.”
Idaho’s Constitution requires the Legislature to maintain “a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”
To once again look at this lawsuit at face value, the plaintiffs ask whether Idaho’s school system can truly be considered “free,” when most parents are expected to pay various fees or pitch in to provide supplies for their kids’ classrooms.
But let’s view the lawsuit in the context of more far-reaching questions:
Æ Can Idaho’s school system be considered “uniform” when state spending cuts have required most districts to seek local property tax levies — with varying results at the polls?
Æ Is the state meeting its obligation when, in August 2006, legislators shifted $260 million of school funding off of the property tax, but failed to fully fund the difference through increased sales taxes?
Æ Is that funding obligation met when a patchwork of 89 sales tax exemptions, worth an estimated $1.7 billion a year, far eclipses the $1 billion actually collected in sales taxes?
It comes as no surprise that the lawsuit directly cites the sales tax exemptions. The plaintiffs’ attorney is Robert Huntley, a former Supreme Court justice and gubernatorial candidate who has long criticized the exemptions.
We won’t try to predict how Huntley and his plaintiffs will fare in a courtroom. But for those of us in the court of public opinion, they raise some good points.
Thousands of parents pay student fees — and thousands of property owners vote to raise their taxes — to help schools make their ends meet. And when they step up to the plate, they also allow their elected legislators to claim fiscal responsibility, to defend a tax structure that strains the state’s ability to pay for public schools.
Maybe their actions will be found constitutional. But they are not without consequence.
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