School Funding
5:53 am
Wed December 5, 2012

School Fees Lawsuit Could Change Idaho’s Education Landscape

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We first heard from Russel Joki two months ago when he and a group of parents filed a lawsuit against the state and its school districts.  Joki says the genesis of the suit came when he registered his grandson at Meridian High School.

“He was charged fees to take a chemistry class, to take a sports medicine class,” he recalls. “He was charged fees to enroll in art classes.”  

Then Joki had to pay a fee to register his granddaughters for kindergarten, an experience, Joki says, that’s all too common.

“We’ve received testimony from parents who have gone to register their children in schools, and because they didn’t have the checkbook with them or because they didn’t have cash on hand they were stopped in the registration line and were told they could not register their child until they could come back with the money,” he says. “It’s unconstitutional, it’s unconscionable, and it’s patently wrong when the constitution of the state requires a free public education.”

Joki’s case hinges on an article of Idaho’s constitution that states the legislature has a duty to “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” And it’s those words – like uniform and thorough – that will be debated in this case as they have in past cases. For instance the state Supreme Court ruled in 1970 that it was unconstitutional to charge students for textbooks.

“What’s the equivalent decision 40 years later?” asks Greg Sergienko, a law professor at Concordia University in Boise. “Are lab fees the basics? How about software for computers?”

Sergienko says when Idaho’s Supreme Court ruled on charging for textbooks it said schools could charge fees for extracurricular activities like sports. But they can’t charge fees for education basics. That’s why Sergienko says Joki’s lawsuit could be a game changer.

“I think the time may be ripe for the Idaho Supreme Court to take a look at this precedent of books and say in the 21st century what do schools and the state have to provide free to make for that effective public education,” he says. “And if school districts aren’t doing it then this lawsuit has the potential to change the way they do business.”

At Meridian High School, where this most recent lawsuit began nearly half of the classes require a fee. Most range between $20 and $40. The school’s principal says they’ll work with any student who can’t afford to pay.

Russell Joki and his lawyer want to prove that most districts in the state charge fees for classes. Even schools in Blaine County do. That’s despite the fact that local levies in the Wood River Valley mean that schools are able to spend more than twice the amount per student as Meridian. Mike Chatterton is business manager for the Blaine County school district.

“We have science fees, we have art fees,” Chatterton says. “You know, most of the fees that a typical high school does throughout the state of Idaho.”  

He adds fees are not an important source of revenue. But it’s different elsewhere. Meridian High principle Geoff Stands says he wishes he didn’t have to charge fees, but without them he couldn’t offer courses like music, foreign languages, and the job preparation classes his school emphasizes. That’s the risk that comes with this suit says law professor Greg Sergienko. What happens if the courts say schools can’t charge class fees? 

“Does that mean we’ll have to reduce the quality of education?” he asks.

Joki believes schools charge fees because they feel they have to. That’s why he’s added a second complaint. The suit now also alleges that the state’s entire system of funding schools violates the constitution.

The state’s Attorney General’s office has asked that the case be thrown out but won’t comment on it. Joki has filed for a summary judgment, asking a judge to rule in his favor without a trial. He says the judge should do that because Idaho’s Supreme Court has already declared the system unconstitutional.

Eight years ago Idaho’s Supreme Court said the legislature was not fulfilling its obligation to fund schools. Thursday on KBSX 91.5's Morning Edition we look back at that case and what this new lawsuit could mean for funding Idaho’s school system.

Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio