School Fees at Issue in Idaho and California

Last Updated: May 30, 2013

This article appeared in the May 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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Russell Joki, an Idaho grandfather who charged all 115 of the state’s school districts with charging unlawful fees for various school costs, says he will continue his legal efforts to end the practice even though Judge Richard Greenwood dismissed a number of district defendants from the case.

Some districts said they were only charging fees for items that were not part of a basic education, a claim disputed by supporters of the lawsuit. Serving all districts with notice of the suit has been a lengthy and complicated process. Joki’s lawyers have said that they will proceed with the suit in the 64 districts that have already been served.

As a related claim, Joki had challenged the state’s funding system, saying that it is the reason districts try to fill budget gaps with fee revenues. In the lawsuit, he claimed that the un-equalized property taxes in the state have created wide funding gaps between property-wealthy districts and property-poor districts. (Editor’s note: See previous RSFN coverage here.)

In March, a district judge ruled that an Idaho law limiting school funding challenges prevented the state from being sued in this action. That law, the Constitutionally Based Educational Claims Act, requires school funding plaintiffs to attempt to resolve their claims at the school district level before suing the state. Joki’s case against the districts, however, was allowed to move forward.

Several school funding experts in the state had filed briefs supporting Joki’s claims by noting that no new legislation had been passed to address the state’s unconstitutional funding system. One brief said that per-student funding this year in Idaho is at 1999 levels. The last school finance ruling in 2005 confirmed the constitutional violation but the ruling was never enforced.

In April, Joki’s attorney argued before the same judge that the case should be granted class action status. Lawyers for defendant districts have said the case does not warrant that status and that individual lawsuits should be brought in each district. Joki responded that requiring individual suits is a way to try to ensure failure of the effort.

California Fee Law Goes into Effect; Regulations Forthcoming

Parents in the Golden State have begun receiving refunds from the California Board of Education as a result of a lawsuit over districts charging illegal fees.

In 2010, a coalition of attorneys working pro bono brought a class action lawsuit against the state of California for allowing school districts to violate the state constitution by charging school fees. The state settled the lawsuit with a commitment to put the constitutional and court-mandated ban on fees into state law and regulation.

Last year a bill specifically banning fees passed and the regulatory process is underway. The regulations will clarify the limited circumstances in which school districts can charge fees. They will also spell out a complaint process and response deadlines for parents who want to file a complaint about fees in their school district.

Student and parent advocates are watching the development of the regulations carefully and have expressed concern that the fee process could make public the income status of students and families. “You can’t ask people to self identify as low-income,” said Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy for the ACLU of Southern California, referring to situations where students who can’t afford extras, such as field trips, would have to ask for assistance.

Read more:

Local coverage of the Idaho lawsuit:

Read an update about a similar school fee challenge in California:

Previous RSFN coverage of the California fee suit here:


Read more from the May 2013 Rural Policy Matters.