Education

Idaho’s kindergarten fees discriminate against students in poverty, lawsuit claims

Caldwell School District to offer full-time kindergarten in 2019-2020 school year

Parents can enroll children who will be five by Sept. 1, 2019 in kindergarten in Caldwell. The school district is expanding the program from just Wilson and Washington Elementary Schools due to new funding for the early literacy program.
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Parents can enroll children who will be five by Sept. 1, 2019 in kindergarten in Caldwell. The school district is expanding the program from just Wilson and Washington Elementary Schools due to new funding for the early literacy program.

Originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on July 17, 2019

Kindergarten fees violate Idaho’s Constitution and discriminate against students in poverty, a former state Supreme Court justice argues in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The class-action suit seeks to overturn kindergarten fees, while forcing school districts and charters to refund fees collected since 2014-15.

The complaint comes as numerous Idaho school districts try to help young students make the transition to school by offering all-day kindergarten. In some cases, schools defray the cost of all-day kindergarten by making parents pick up the difference.

“Requiring parents to pay for the second half of the day … disadvantages low-income families,” according to the lawsuit, filed in District Court in Boise. “What is their recourse for the second half of the kindergarten day? It very likely includes unsupervised latch-key situations or non-education baby-sitting situations.”

The lawsuit lists Idaho’s 115 school districts and 54 charter schools as likely defendants. The lawsuit’s co-authors are T. Jason Wood, an Idaho Falls attorney, and Robert Huntley, a Boise attorney. Huntley is a former gubernatorial candidate who served on the Idaho Supreme Court from 1982 to 1989. Since 1990, he has filed a string of lawsuits challenging Idaho school funding and student fees. In 2015, District Judge Richard Greenwood sided with Huntley in a lawsuit challenging fees in the West Ada School District.

As in previous cases, this lawsuit centers on a section of the Constitution that mandates that the state “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”

Focusing on the kindergarten issue, the attorneys bring their lawsuit on behalf of West Ada parents Peyton Gifford and Mollie Gabaldon. Their son, Christopher Gabaldon, will attend kindergarten this fall. West Ada charges parents $300 per month to enroll their kids in all-day kindergarten.

The state only provides schools with funding for half-day kindergarten — which means that all-day kindergarten offerings and costs vary from district to district.

Boise, for example, charges $250 a month, but offers discounts to families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Other schools offer free kindergarten. Murtaugh, a high-poverty district in the rural Magic Valley, uses grants and federal dollars to cover kindergarten costs. Caldwell, Nampa and Vallivue plan to offer free kindergarten this fall, using state literacy funding to defray costs.

Kindergarten is optional under state law, but in their lawsuit, Huntley and Wood argue that kindergarten is essentially a staple of the state’s education system. Nearly every district and charter offers kindergarten. The state sets the start of “school age” at five years old, which corresponds with kindergarten. Idaho’s literacy program includes tests for kindergarten students, and extra help for kindergartners who are struggling to keep pace with their classmates.

“Kindergarten became, through statute and rule, an integral part of the Idaho Constitution’s uniform and thorough system of free common schools,” the lawsuit reads.

The implications of the lawsuit — for schools and for parents — are difficult to gauge. Since 2014-15, more than 105,000 students have attended kindergarten in Idaho, according to State Department of Education records. It’s unclear exactly how many of these students attended all-day kindergarten at their parents’ expense.

Huntley has argued that the schools are charging more than $20 million a year in unconstitutional fees, to offset state funding shortfalls.

 

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