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Back-to-School Daze

Can Public School Districts Require Parents to Buy Necessary School Supplies?

All around the state, parents of public school children are engaged in an end-of-summer ritual: scouring the stores for school supplies. Many parents may feel they are required to.

They are wrong.

Under Michigan law, public schools are legally responsible to provide students with all necessary school supplies. Parents are not legally obligated to buy any educational items at all, whether pencils, pens, notebooks, glue, crayons or a litany of other classroom articles.

Public schools’ legal obligation regarding school supplies comes from the state constitution’s Article 8, Section 2, which mandates, “The legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law.” This language was reviewed by the Michigan Supreme Court in the 1970 case Bond v. Ann Arbor School District, where the court held, “[I]t is clear that books and school supplies are an essential part of a system of free public elementary and secondary schools.” This ruling covers supplies for all students, regardless of family income.

Indeed, the Michigan Department of Education has two documents on its website underscoring the public schools’ responsibilities to provide supplies. The first document, a 14-page position statement last updated in 2006, clearly stipulates, “School districts may not make charges for any required or elective courses such as for: (a) General or registration fees[;] (b) Course fees or materials ticket charges[;] (c) Textbooks and school supplies,” although districts may charge for extracurricular activities. The second document, a 2003 state Department of Education memo sent to every public school district and charter school, provides examples of items that the districts “must provide … free of charge” for required or elective courses, including “[p]encils, paper, crayons, scissors, glue sticks” and “[t]extbooks (regular or supplemental).”

So the law is clear. Yet given some Michigan public school websites, parents could be forgiven for thinking that they’re on the hook for basic school supplies. Consider, for instance, the online shopping list of Waterford School District’s Beaumont Elementary School. The list includes the following language:

Below are generic grade level supply lists for this year. Please refer to the list of the grade level your child will be entering. At the Meet & Greet, your child’s teacher may add an item or two, but the majority of the needed supplies are listed. We hope this helps with the back to school rush!

  • Every student needs a pair of clean, light-soled gym shoes to be left at school for physical education class. Please make sure they fit!
  • Every student needs a backpack or book bag that will fit into a locker. Backpacks with wheels do not fit!
  • Every student needs an old shirt to use as a “paint shirt” for art class.

Immediately below this language are separate supply lists for grades K-5, presented without further instruction or comment.

Now the school could respond that this Web page satisfies the letter of the law (the principal of the school did not return a phone call). After all, the main page hyperlink bringing readers to the online list refers to a “suggested Back to School Shopping list”; moreover, gym shoes are an item that the state Department of Education has argued (dubiously) that parents can be legally asked to provide. In addition, the school might conceivably have had other, more accurate communications with parents about school supplies.

But the page itself leaves the distinct impression that the lengthy grade-by-grade lists that follow are mandatory. The words “needed supplies” are used to describe the grade-by-grade lists, and the word “needs” appears repeatedly before those lists follow. Further, the fifth-grade list contains several items described as “optional,” reinforcing the impression that the other items are mandatory. In fact, if a parent printed the online list to take to the store, language indicating that the list wasn’t mandatory would be nowhere in sight.

Parents might be similarly confused by the online student supply list for St. Clair High School in East China School District. “Parents and Guardians” of the school’s students are told: “The following pages contain items your student will need upon returning in the fall of 2011. We hope that by providing this list at this time, you and your student will be able to locate these necessary items.”

Parents are also informed, “When gathering or purchasing items for next school year, many items are for use in multiple classes and do not need to be purchased for each specific class" — implying that they do nevertheless need to be purchased for at least one. Four pages of items for 10 school subjects then follow. One of the items is marked “optional,” while another is marked “recommended,” suggesting, as with Beaumont Elementary, that the other listed items are required.

In fairness, the list at one point states, “[P]lease do your best to outfit your student with as many items as possible” — a hint that supply purchases might not be compulsory. And when questioned about the list by an editor for Michigan Capitol Confidential, St. Clair High School Principal Ronald Miller immediately volunteered that the school would freely provide all students with the school supplies they would need — something he believed that the parents of his school’s students were already well aware of. 

It is also fair to note that the St. Clair High School main page text hyperlinking to the supply list twice describes the list as “recommended” — but it is equally fair to note that the main page did not do so before Mr. Miller spoke to Michigan Capitol Confidential. Until sometime during the day of Aug. 22, the main page simply titled the list as the “2011-12 Student Supply List.”

True, the main page, before it was altered, did include some ambiguous language — such as describing the list as “recommended/required” — that might indicate that purchasing the supplies was not mandatory. But unfortunately, the phrase “recommended/required” actually suggested the opposite when coupled with the “optional” and “recommended” items on the list itself. If two items were “optional” and “recommended,” then everything else, by implication, was required.

A random scan of other public school websites finds that while some are more explicit about acknowledging that the schools will provide all necessary supplies, others use potentially misleading language like “needs” and “necessary” in supply lists for parents.

Given that the law on this issue is so clear, an important question remains: Why should there be any ambiguity in districts’ website notices to parents about school supplies? In other words, why don’t districts simply state: “Our public school district is legally responsible for all your children’s necessary school supplies. Parents are not required to buy these supplies, though they may do so if they wish”?

Sadly, it may be that some schools are reluctant to publicly commit themselves to such spending when they feel finances are tight. Tellingly, the 2003 State Department of Education memo about free school supplies hinted at a similar concern, observing, “Given recent budget challenges, many local school districts are under pressure.”

Yet districts have entirely legal means to liberate money for classroom supplies, including the privatization of noninstructional services. Districts could also provide less generous salaries and benefits to school employees during collective bargaining negotiations.

Parents are, of course, perfectly free to buy their children’s school supplies as a contribution to their school districts and to their children’s education. But public schools cannot — and should not — require parents to buy school supplies. Given the unequivocal state of the law on this issue, districts should ensure that school personnel are explicit in all their communications with parents that it is the schools, not the parents, who are responsible for outfitting students with the educational supplies that the children need to complete their schoolwork.

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Patrick J. Wright is director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, a Michigan-based public interest law firm. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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