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.