Lawsuits over “Fee” Public Schools

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

Field trips, art supplies, and snacks were just some of the items included in the fees charged to enroll Joki’s granddaughters. His grandson’s high school registration charge covered chemistry, art, and sports medicine class fees, as well as $10 in unspecified 11th grade class dues.

Public school fees are unconstitutional according to a 1970 Idaho Supreme Court case, Paulson v. Minidoka County School District. Until that time the district charged all students a $25 fee, which included an activity fee and a $12.50 text book fee. The father of two students refused to pay, and his sons were denied their transcripts upon graduation. The court ruled, “The appellants may not charge students for such items because the common schools are to be ‘free’ as our constitution requires.”

Nationwide, school districts are increasingly charging fees for extracurricular activities to make up for budget shortfalls. Yet registration and academic course fees run afoul of states’ free school guarantees.

As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, one Ohio family paid nearly $4,500 for their three children to take classes, play in band, and run track—for a single year.

“I’m wondering, am I going to be paying for my parking spot at the school? Because you’re making me pay for just about everything else,” the students’ mother said.

In response, some parents are scaling back on costly extracurriculars. So are taxpayers, who are voting against tax hikes that are supposed to cover core public school expenses.

We can’t afford to get our teeth fixed because it’s too expensive,” said one 70-year-old Ohio voter who opposed a recent tax increase. “If we have our taxes go up to pay for little Joey’s football, that’s not exactly fair.”

Other parents have had enough and are sending their children to private schools instead. Around 100 parents at just one Ohio public school district opted to send their children to private schools since they’re about the same price as “free” public schools.

California also narrowly avoided costly litigation this year. The American Civil Liberties Union withdrew its class action suit against the State of California over public school fees for courses on October 1, the same day Joki filed his suit. Similar to Idaho’s constitution, in California students are guaranteed a free public education. A new law enacted last month provides guidance to schools about how to fund raise constitutionally and how state officials can intervene to stop illegal fees without having to go to court. 

“Suggested” school supply lists are also a target of the Idaho lawsuit. Along with registration fees, Idaho public schools require students’ parents and guardians to purchase specified brands of school supplies, from pencils and paper to crayons and tissue paper. “It’s occurring statewide,” Joki told the Spokesman Review. “These supply lists are a substitute for essential educational materials that the district needs to provide. Instead, the burden has been placed on parents and patrons.”

If successful, the class action lawsuit would refund the previous year’s public school fees to Idaho parents and guardians statewide. Those fees amount to an estimated $2 million, which school districts or a state supplemental appropriation would have to fund.

Just goes to show that there’s really no such thing as a free lunch or a free public school.

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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