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Ask the Attorney with John Brower, J.D.   [Back to Ask the Attorney]

Question: Each year I get a note from my children’s school with a list of supplies that I am supposed to purchase.  This year on this list are: five pencils, one big pink eraser, one set of Crayola colored pencils (12 pack or larger), one Elmer’s Glue Stick, on Fiscar’s brand “student scissors”, a pencil box for the pencils, one spiral notebook (wide rule), two pocket folders, one box of Kleenex, one backpack with no wheels, and finally, three boxes of flashcards; one each for addition, subtraction, and multiplication.  I don't understand why I am required to buy all these items when I already pay taxes?  


Answer: Back in 1970 the Michigan Supreme Court addressed this exact issue in a case arising out of Ann Arbor titled Bond v. Public Schools of Ann Arbor School Dist...  If someone is interested in reading it, it is available on with the citation number - 383 Mich. 693, 178 N.W.2d 484). 


In that case, the Court was confronted with what was the then common practice of requiring students (really – their parents) to purchase all their text books and supplies.  When confronted with the Ann Arbor Public Schools implementation of their version of this practice, the trial court and then the Court of Appeals had held that there was nothing unconstitutional about this their policy.  However, when the Michigan Supreme Court addressed the issue it applied two sections of the Michigan Constitution in reached the conclusion that the policy was unconstitutional.  It did so by analyzing the citizen’s intent when they included the word 'free' in Article 8, Section 2 of the Michigan Constitution of 1963 which states:  The legislature shall maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools as defined by law. The Court also analyzed Article 11, Section 9 which provided in pertinent part:  The legislature shall continue a system of primary schools, whereby every school district in the state shall provide for the education of its pupils without charge for tuition. . . .


In overturning the lower courts, the Michigan Supreme Court held that these Constitutional provisions requires a school district to furnish, free of charge, those things which are either necessary elements of any school's activity or an integral fundamental part of elementary and secondary education.  


While that decision appears to have resolved the issue of textbooks, as there is rarely any argument that textbooks are “essential” or “fundamental” to a child’s education, it appears not to have resolved the issue as to school supplies.   The court’s failure to clearly address the “supplies issues” in its Bond decision appears to be creating a new controversy with the funding crisis schools are currently facing.  From what clients tell me it is more and more common that schools are requiring parent’s to purchase a growing list of school supplies; supplies that can cost a parent over $100 per child.   


When confronted by parents who either won’t or cannot afford to provide what has been required, it is my understanding that some school district’s interpretation of the Bond decision is to provide the student one pencil per semester and some blank sheets of paper as that is all a student needs.   Frankly, as I have not had reason to research this issue, I do not know if this interpretation comes about from a Michigan Department of Education policy, from the interpretation of the law from one of the major law firms that regularly advise schools or from an opinion of the Michigan Attorney General.  


In your situation from the facts you provided, it appears that your child’s classroom teacher has determined that the parents of all the students in his or her classroom “must provide” this extensive list of supplies.  It could be argued that in creating that list and requiring the parent to provide each items on the list (vs. making it a “suggested list”), that the local school district (by allowing the teacher to act as she or he has) has by definition already made the determination that these items are all a “necessary element” or an “integral fundamental part” of the child’s education?  If so, then the argument would be that they should be provided “free” as required by the Michigan Constitution, as interpreted by our Supreme Court in Bond.


As a related issue, I also know from my time as an elected school board member involved in rewriting our school district’s policy manual, that any requirement for a parent to pay any fee (“pay for play”, instruments, supplies, etc.) should also have a way to address how to address the situation when a parent claims they cannot afford the fee or just refuses to pay the fee.  


If this is an issue you want to pursue, I would suggest you first contact the Central Office to see if your school district has a written policy regarding required supply purchases.  I would then review that policy with the teacher who created the list and the building administrator/principal.  If you are still unsatisfied, I would recommend bringing the issue to the attention of your Superintendent and/or your elected school board during the “Call to the Public” session which is part of every regular board meeting.  If that fails, you may want to consult with one of the public advocacy agencies like the ACLU or with private legal counsel.


John Brower, JD
Education Law Center, PLLC · 810-227-9850 · 

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