As I shop with my grandchildren for back-to-school clothing and school supplies, I also watch other moms and dads pushing and filling the carts. Many of them have the “official” school supplies list, carefully choosing the exact items, including brand name items, demanded by our public schools.
Eight glue sticks. Forty-eight No. 2 pencils. Four boxes of Kleenex. Two reams of copy paper. And the list goes on. At the cash register, the cost of the school supplies mounts up. Depending on how much the parents can afford, the total is easily $50.
These same moms and dads have another payment ahead of them. Many will pay school registration fees, course enrollment fees, participation fees for drama, band, debate, football, volleyball. The checkbooks come out once again and this time the dollar amount is in the hundreds: $200. $450. More.
What’s going on here? The Idaho Constitution requires that public schools be free. Article 9, Section 1 states: “LEGISLATURE TO ESTABLISH SYSTEM OF FREE SCHOOLS. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”
So I ask you, what does the word “free” mean?
In 1971, the Idaho Supreme Court struck down fees for textbooks and established the “necessary element” standard. The court declared that “any necessary element” of a child’s education must be provided free of charge.
And yet, since 1971, Idaho schools quietly reintroduced fees. In response to this unconstitutional practice, I filed a lawsuit in 2012 against the state of Idaho and all school districts for their failure to uphold the Idaho Constitution.
The suit has two complaints. One is against the Idaho Legislature for its failure to meet its constitutional obligation to fully fund schools. Yes, the governor and the Legislature claim they increased funding last year. But that increase does not bring public education funding up to 2009 levels.
The second complaint was against any school district charging fees. Progress has been made. Many school districts reduced the number and type of fees they charge. The West Ada School District, however, continues to charge fees and continues to post “official” school supply lists on its websites.
When schools give school supply lists, without indicating the list is optional, parents are led to believe that the supplies are required. I contend this practice is another violation of the Idaho Constitution. It is an indirect fee, but a fee nonetheless.
I support individual choice — parents determine what supplies to buy. When a school presents a long list, including brand names, it becomes a requirement to conform, especially when the lists include materials that clearly stock school inventory for general classroom, not individual, use.
No parent should have to be humbled into submission and go to the principal saying, “I don’t have the money for this item or that fee ... Can you give me a waiver or some financial help?” Inexcusable. Discriminatory.
And no teacher should have to supply a classroom. When that happens, the school board has failed its constitutional duty. It must reprioritize spending.
The lawsuit finally goes to trial on Sept. 30 in the Fourth District Court, Ada County, with the possibility of appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court.
In the meantime, I urge parents to demand that school districts uphold the Idaho Constitution. Challenge paying those fees. Choose your own supplies. Support schools, yes, but do not be intimidated with fees and “official” school supply lists.
Russell Joki, of Meridian, is a trustee on the West Ada School District board.