Article IX, Section I of the Idaho Constitution says “... 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.”
Pretty simple, right?
Hardly. The definition of “thorough” can vary considerably, depending on whom you ask. And what should fall under the umbrella of “free?”
Those questions are being put before the court system. Again.
According to a lawsuit filed by former Nampa School District Superintendent Russell Joki and other parents, Idaho has failed to meet its constitutional requirement to provide a free education because some students have paid registration and class fees for field trips, science labs and supplies for art and other classes.
The $2.4 million lawsuit (the amount is ostensibly a “refund” to parents who paid these fees) also rips the state for a “grossly underfunded” public education system. It highlights the fact Idaho is 50th in the nation in education spending and laments state tax exemptions and cuts which have “forced” districts to seek “vital” funding via supplemental levies.
This is a lawsuit in search of focus. There are two distinct issues at play here:
Issue No. 1: Should lab fees, school supplies and field trips be free to students? and
Issue No. 2: Does the state of Idaho appropriate enough money to education?
The plaintiffs argue that the answer to Issue No. 1
is yes based on a 1971 Idaho Supreme Court ruling (Paulson v. Minidoka County School District). That case centered around a fee for items including textbooks and the furnishing of transcripts to graduates. The justices ruled that textbooks and transcripts should be part of a “free education.”
That was a reasonable ruling. It’s also reasonable to expect parents to pay for school supplies. They’ve been doing so for decades. Field trips are extracurricular, so it’s fair to charge for them. Science labs require the purchase of special equipment and supplies, so it isn’t overbearing to assess fees for those, either.
In short, it doesn’t look like much of a case based on Issue No. 1. But this lawsuit reeks more of an ideological poke in the eye to state lawmakers based on Issue No. 2. They’re frustrated at what conservative legislators have done, and since they can’t vote them out of office, they’re suing them, the state, the Education Department and its leader, Tom Luna.
But what is a “proper” level of funding? Is that up to the judge to decide? Give us a dollar amount.
And what about the funding mechanism? Is that up to the judge, too?
You can draw your own conclusions on whether Idaho should raise taxes or eliminate exemptions to give more money to education, or whether we’re spending plenty on schools already and just need to be wiser in how we’re spending it. Make your voice heard by contacting your legislators and voting on Nov. 6.
But this lawsuit is weak on Issue No. 1 and too unfocused to expect broad changes via judicial fiat on Issue No. 2. It smells more of ideological grandstanding than serious litigation.
* Our view is based on the majority opinions of the Idaho Press-Tribune editorial board. Members of the board are Publisher Matt Davison, Managing Editor Vickie Holbrook, Opinion Editor Phil Bridges and community members Kim Keller, Carlos Soriano, Timothy Brown, Taylor Raney, Ken Pieksma and Nicole Gibbs.