Lawsuit challenges kindergarten fees

(UPDATED, 4:09 p.m., with numbers from the Boise School District.)

Kindergarten fees violate Idaho’s Constitution and discriminate against students in poverty, a former state Supreme Court justice argues in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The class-action suit seeks to overturn kindergarten fees, while forcing school districts and charters to refund fees collected since 2014-15.

The complaint comes as numerous Idaho school districts try to help young students make the transition to school by offering all-day kindergarten. In some cases, schools defray the cost of all-day kindergarten by making parents pick up the difference.

“Requiring parents to pay for the second half of the day … disadvantages low-income families,” according to the lawsuit, filed in District Court in Boise. “What is their recourse for the second half of the kindergarten day? It very likely includes unsupervised latch-key situations or non-education baby-sitting situations.”

Robert Huntley

The lawsuit lists Idaho’s 115 school districts and 54 charter schools as likely defendants. The lawsuit’s co-authors are T. Jason Wood, an Idaho Falls attorney, and Robert Huntley, a Boise attorney. Huntley is a former gubernatorial candidate who served on the Idaho Supreme Court from 1982 to 1989. Since 1990, he has filed a string of lawsuits challenging Idaho school funding and student fees, and he has accused schools of collecting some $20 million a year in unconstitutional student fees. In 2015, District Judge Richard Greenwood sided with Huntley in a lawsuit challenging fees in the West Ada School District.

As in previous cases, this lawsuit centers on a section of the Constitution that mandates that the state “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”

Focusing on the kindergarten issue, the attorneys bring their lawsuit on behalf of West Ada parents Peyton Gifford and Mollie Gabaldon. Their son, Christopher Gabaldon, will attend kindergarten this fall. West Ada charges parents $300 per month to enroll their kids in all-day kindergarten.

The state only provides schools with funding for half-day kindergarten — which means that all-day kindergarten offerings and costs vary from district to district.

Boise, for example, charges $250 a month, but offers discounts to families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Other schools offer free kindergarten. Murtaugh, a high-poverty district in the rural Magic Valley, taps into general funds to cover full-day kindergarten costs. Caldwell, Nampa and Vallivue plan to offer free kindergarten this fall, using state literacy funding to defray costs.

Kindergarten is optional under state law, but in their lawsuit, Huntley and Wood argue that kindergarten is essentially a staple of the state’s education system. Nearly every district and charter offers kindergarten. The state sets the start of “school age” at five years old, which corresponds with kindergarten. Idaho’s literacy program includes tests for kindergarten students, and extra help for kindergartners who are struggling to keep pace with their classmates.

“Kindergarten became, through statute and rule, an integral part of the Idaho Constitution’s uniform and thorough system of free common schools,” the lawsuit reads.

The implications of the lawsuit — for schools and for parents — are difficult to gauge. Since 2014-15, more than 105,000 students have attended kindergarten in Idaho, according to State Department of Education records. But it’s unclear exactly how many of these students attended all-day kindergarten, or how many did so at their parents’ expense.

But numbers from the Boise School District put the question in some context.

From 2014-15 through 2018-19, the district collected close to $2.4 million in kindergarten fees, spokesman Dan Hollar said Wednesday afternoon. And all-day kindergarten enrollment will hit a record 463 students, up from 252 students the previous year.

In response to “growing parent interest” and Little’s reading initiative, Boise will offer all-day kindergarten at 15 schools this fall, Hollar said.

The Idaho School Boards Association is pushing the Legislature to fund all-day kindergarten statewide, at a cost of about $52 million a year.

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