Idaho Charges to Send Kids to Public School

     BOISE (CN) — Idaho, dead last in the nation in local school funding, has handed out so many tax exemptions that it charges parents $20 million a year in unconstitutional “fees” to send their children to school, a mother claims in a new step in a long legal struggle.
     Idaho ranks 49th among states in per pupil spending, at $6,658: behind Mississippi (5), Arizona (4), and Oklahoma (3). Only Utah spends less. But Idaho provides its schools with only $301 per pupil in locally derived funding — far and away the lowest in the nation, according to 24/7 Wall Street, an economics website.
     In a class action in Ada County Court, Molly Hyde claims West Ada Joint School District No. 2, in west Boise, charges parents more than $2 million per year in fees for classes and school supplies, in violation of the Idaho Constitution.
     She puts the blame squarely on the Legislature, which has created nearly 100 exemptions to the state’s Sales and Use Tax, which was instituted in 1965. Lawmakers have handed out so many free passes that Idaho exempts more than it collects.
     “Year after year, the Legislature has added new exemptions to the Sales and Use Tax, to the point where there are now more than 98 exemptions, with the result that the exemptions have a value of approximately $1.9 billion, whereas the tax itself as now imposed provides the state with only $1.2 billion in revenue,” the complaint states. “The result has been to impose increased burdens on West Ada at a time when limitations upon local taxing authority make it difficult for West Ada and other school districts to provide free public schools as required by the Idaho Constitution.”
     Hyde’s attorney, Robert Huntley, said the Sales and Use Tax started out with only 17 exemptions.
     “Over the years, they kept giving away more exemptions, destroying the tax base and underfunding education,” he Huntley said in an interview Wednesday. “The Legislature has been shrinking and shrinking the tax base. Over the last 20 years, we’ve reduced the support for public education by $700 million per year, and reduced support of our universities by about $356 million per year.”
     Hyde, who has two children in the school district, seeks to represent all parents and children in the district who are charged fees for what is supposed to be “free common school” education.
     West Ada, with about 35,000 students, is the only defendant in this case — which is not the only one pending.
     “In contravention of the constitutional requirement to provide free common schools, West Ada, being grossly underfunded by the state Legislature, has been engaging in the practice of levying fees upon its students and their families for various coursework, electives, supplies and other fees and charges, both ‘curricular’ and ‘co-curricular,’ in violation of the Idaho Constitution,” Hyde says in the complaint.
     Parents who are “financially limited” must choose whether they can afford for their children to enroll in chemistry, for instance, or take a class that does not charge fees, Hyde says.
     The stingy Legislature has complicated the problem by Idaho Code Section 33-603, which allows schools to require as a condition of graduation full payment of fees before students can receive a diploma, certification or transcripts.
     “Through its pervasive control of communicating and endorsing its fee and school supplies list, West Ada has created an environment that feeds on social pressure to enforce payment of fees and providing of ‘essential school supplies,'” the complaint states. “The embarrassment and intrusion of this exercise cannot be refuted by arguing that the fees are of a de minimis character, since fees control student choice of elective and advanced courses that are important to the student’s overall learning and potential for continued education.”
     Huntley said that while the state’s school districts are not directly to blame for underfunding, they could seek a solution from state legislators.
     “They do have a choice, and something that I would like to see happen, is the school districts coming to the Legislature and asking them to restore the tax base,” he said.
     Huntley filed a virtually identical complaint in on June 15 in Bannock County Court, against the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District.
     In 2012, he filed a statewide class action on behalf of West Ada parent Russell Joki, asserting the same claims against Meridian Joint School District No. 2 (now West Ada Joint School District No. 2), and against all 115 school districts, 50 charter schools, the state, the Idaho State Board of Education and Superintendant of Public Instruction Tom Luna.
     The state court dismissed all district defendants except West Ada because there were no named plaintiffs from the other school districts. The State of Idaho defendants were also dismissed, the court finding that the Constitutionally Based Educational Claims Act (CBEC) precluded a lawsuit against them, according to an appeal brief filed in Idaho’s Supreme Court on May 20 this year.
     The case against West Ada proceeded, with the court finding that the district has been assessing and collecting fees in violation of the state constitution since 2011, resulting in $2 million in fees collected by West Ada per year.
     No appeals were filed in that case.
     Fees collected statewide are approximately $20 million per year, according to the brief.
     Joki’s appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court addresses the trial court’s ruling in regard to all defendants except West Ada. The appeal, in part, challenges CBEC as a basis for the dismissal of the state defendants, and claims the trial court erred in ruling that the state’s board of education and the individual state officers are not responsible for unconstitutional acts or omissions of school districts.
     West Ada chief communications officer Eric Exline did not return a phone call seeking comment on Wednesday.
     Hyde seeks class certification, declaratory judgment, an injunction, and costs of suit.
     Public school funding traditionally was based on property tax. But numerous lawsuits stretching back decades have pointed out that parents in wealthy districts can raise more money for schools by paying lower tax rates than parents in poor districts can raise by paying higher rates. The tax revolt set off by California’s Prop. 13 in 1978, which spread across the nation, has squeezed school funding even more.

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