Grandparent Brings Constitutional Challenge to Idaho School Fees

Last Updated: October 29, 2012

This article appeared in the October 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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Russ Joki, a former superintendent in Idaho and Colorado has filed a lawsuit in Ada County, claiming that fees charged to public school students violate the Idaho Constitution’s guarantee of free schools. He filed the suit after his twin granddaughters were charged $45 each to enroll in kindergarten and his grandson was charged $85 in high school fees. The suit also references the school supply lists students receive each year as evidence that public schools are not free. Joki is seeking class-action status on behalf of all schoolchildren and parents in the state of Idaho.

The suit contends that underfunded public school districts have been turning to fees as a way of making up for shortfalls in state funding. This dynamic has been seen in a number of other states, and the practice has also been challenged in court elsewhere. Read previous RSFN coverage of school fee challenges here and here.

Revisiting previous funding suit

Joki’s amended lawsuit also claims that the Legislature has ignored a ruling in Idaho’s most recent school finance lawsuit, Idaho Schools for Equal Educational Opportunity (ISEEO) v. State, which ended in 2005. In that ruling, the Idaho Supreme Court held that the school funding system was unconstitutional and said a remedy must be “fashioned by the Legislature.” Joki’s lawsuit notes that no legislation has ever been introduced specifically to address the ruling, resulting in the use of school fees.

ISEEO, a coalition of mostly rural districts and individual plaintiffs, first filed the lawsuit over twenty years ago. ISEEO focused largely on the conditions of facilities in the state, some of which were condemned and many of which had broken heating systems or leaking roofs. The ruling said that the system for funding facilities in the state, which is based on bonds paid by property taxes, was unfair to low-wealth districts. It also stated that the legislature should change the system for paying for school facilities and made specific suggestions for how to do so. It did not, however, order that these changes be made.

The case was abruptly closed in 2006 and plaintiffs have been unable to force legislative compliance. Their efforts included the notable step of suing the Justices of the Idaho Supreme Court in federal court.

New "Luna Laws" on ballot

Meanwhile, new education policies are a hot topic of debate this election season. Critics of Idaho’s sweeping school reform laws, often called the “Luna Laws” after their champion State Superintendent of Education Tom Luna, raised enough support to put measures calling for repeal of the laws on the state ballot.

Those laws ended teacher tenure, rolled back most collective bargaining rights, and tied teacher pay to student test scores. The provisions also shifted portions of state funding for teachers to technology enhancements, including plans to expand online learning and provide laptop computers to high school students. Ballot Propositions 1, 2, and 3 ask voters to keep or repeal the laws.

Proposition 1, which addresses teacher tenure, if passed will also bring back the state's declining enrollment policy.

That policy phases reductions in state funding over more than one year when districts lose large numbers of students from one year to the next. It has been especially important in helping rural districts avoid sudden cutbacks, including teacher layoffs. But Luna worked to end the provision and included it with the tenure laws, claiming it was too costly. Luna critics charge that ending the provision harms struggling districts and is another means of reducing teacher rights in the state.

See previous RSFN coverage on the compromise that temporarily protected the funding here.

You can read previous RPM coverage of school fee challenges here and here.

Read more:

Local coverage: 

Editorial supporting the suit:

Coverage on other current education policy debates around funding:

Guide to Propositions 1, 2, and 3


Read more from the October 2012 Rural Policy Matters.