A new lawsuit targeting Idaho's public school districts and charter schools would build on past successful litigation, claiming that charging student fees is unconstitutional and violates students' rights to an education.
The class action lawsuit was filed May 9 in federal court. It names as its plaintiffs specific students and parents at two school districts in Eastern Idaho — and "all similarly situated patrons and students" at 115 school districts and approximately 50 charter schools.
The lawsuit focuses on school supply costs and other fees charged to students and their families when the student wants to enroll in specific classes. The plaintiffs also hope to target athletics fees, said lead attorney Robert Huntley. Those fees for "various coursework, electives, supplies and other fees and charges" amount to "a form of coercion to pay for essential and normal elements of a free public education," the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs seek repayment of all such fees the districts have collected since at least Oct. 1, 2012.
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That date is when Huntley sued the West Ada School District in state court over similar claims. The earlier lawsuit, filed on behalf of former West Ada School Board member Russ Joki and his family, ended with a 4th District judge agreeing that certain school fees were unconstitutional. But the ruling was limited solely to costs charged to Joki's grandson — and the judge did not order the West Ada district to stop charging fees for classes or kindergarten programs.
Huntley said the goal of the new, class-action lawsuit is not only to recover the fees already charged, but also to have a judge declare this practice can no longer continue.
He said he has received word from districts that say they recognize the fees they are charging are unconstitutional, but they are going to continue charging them until they get sued.
He and co-counsel Jason Wood also want to provoke a political response. In a cover letter sent to school officials, the pair talk about underfunded schools and say "we are hopeful" the suit will spur lawmakers to spend more on education.
"Every candidate for the Legislature, every legislator, every governor, every governor candidate says they support education," Huntley said Monday. "But not one of them comes forward with the means to properly fund schools."
Since the West Ada decision, attorneys for school districts across the state have advised their districts to stop charging fees for anything that students receive credit for, such as art, said Rob Winslow, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators. That same advice has not been given for athletics, however, Winslow said.
It's unclear how many districts still charge fees for classes.
Dan Hollar, spokesman for the Boise School District, said the district has made a concerted effort to stop charging class fees, and does not charge students who participate in athletics. The district does have funding options that few others in Idaho do: It predates statehood and still has the ability to levy property taxes.
The new lawsuit was filed by Mike and Olivia Zeyen, whose children attended the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District; Rachel Booth, whose two children attended the same school district; and Kim Wood, the parent of two children in the Bonneville Joint School District.
Among other claims, the lawsuit says charging for "essential school supplies" is especially problematic to high school and middle school students, who face "peer pressure" if they cannot afford the supply list. The fees affect which elective and advanced courses students choose; the complaint states those are "important to the student's overall learning and potential for continued education."
The lawsuit estimates the various Idaho districts charge somewhere around $20 million in combined fees each year. It claims the schools' policies are "malicious, wanton, oppressive, and/or in reckless disregard" of the students' federally protected rights.
Not named in the lawsuit: the State Department of Education. A spokeswoman there declined comment Monday.