As any parent surely knows or remembers, the
out-of- pocket expense and time involved in outfitting your children for school
can be considerable. Legally, Michigan courts have interpreted the Constitutional
provision for “free public elementary and secondary schools” as the prohibition
of registration fees aside from non-mandatory activities, including band,
football and other extracurriculars. However, many parents are misled by the
school districts themselves.
In August, a concerned parent called Mackinac Legal
Foundation Director Patrick J. Wright complaining that their school district
was mandating that parents buy basic school supplies for their kids. Wright
investigated her claim and found several districts that he described as
“obfuscating their legal responsibility.” The obligation of schools to provide
educational supplies is not only determined by law; the Michigan Department of
Education website bears two separate documents emphasizing this distinction.
A mandatory school-supply list intended for students’
parents appeared on the website of East China School District’s St. Clair High
School. After Wright posted an article on Capitol Confidential questioning the district’s legal authority, the language
was abruptly amended.
At Waterford District’s Beaumont Elementary School, the
2011 back-to-school shopping list bore similarly misleading language. Phrases
like “needed supplies” appeared repeatedly; meanwhile, several items were
listed as “optional.” Using such contrasting words left parents with the
impression that they were obligated to purchase certain supplies.
Some districts guilt parents into purchasing supplies by
claiming financial hardship. But savings are widely available elsewhere, Wright
noted, by trimming overly generous employee compensation packages and by
privatizing noninstructional services. “Some districts lock themselves into
tight budgets by the various collective bargaining agreements that they enter
into,” he said, making the case in radio and television interviews.
While some parents may be
willing to contribute time and money to their children’s classrooms, the
schools are obligated to make it clear that it’s a choice. Thanks to the
Mackinac Center, districts are now on notice that while they can request parent
donations, they cannot require them.