It may be hard to believe, but back-to-school time is quickly approaching. This weekend, I will be volunteering at the Communities in Schools of Greenbrier County “Stuff the Bus” school supply drive. Years prior to this, I’ve spent several hours, along with others in my office, stuffing backpacks at Scott’s Run Settlement House in coordination with United Way. It reminds me that a few years ago a “hot topic” related to school systems (or individual schools) dealt with sending parents a “back-to-school supply list”. As we approach the 2013-14 school year, I thought now might be a good time to remind county school systems of the legal issues relating to mandatory back-to-school supply lists.

Back-to-school supply lists became a “hot topic” several years ago when the West Virginia Office of Educational Performance Audits ("OEPA") cited certain school systems for allowing schools to send a list of "back-to-school supplies" to parents. Shortly thereafter the West Virginia Department of Education issued a Superintendent Interpretation providing guidance on school supplies.

The reasoning behind a prohibition of a mandatory back-to-school supply lists as outlined in the Interpretation is rooted in Section 1 of Article XII of the West Virginia Constitution which provides that the State, through local boards of education, shall provide for a "thorough and efficient system of free schools". This constitutional provision was interpreted by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in the case of Randolph County Board of Educ. v. Adams, 467 S.E.2d 150 (W.Va. 1995). That case involved a challenge to a book rental program for students who were not on free or reduced lunch. The Supreme Court agreed with the Circuit Court of Randolph County that a board of education is not permitted to charge a book rental fee because of the constitutional provision. The Court concluded as follows:

 Section 1 of Article XII of the West Virginia Constitution creates a strong presumption in favor of making everything that is deemed a necessary component to public education cost-free. When a board of education seeks to charge parents for their children's participation in public education, the board bears a heavy burden in rebutting this constitutionally based presumption. 

As the Interpretation states, “though this decision directly addresses only textbooks, the language quoted therein does provide important guidance regarding school supplies in general. Specifically, the Court clearly states that those items that are an integral and fundamental part of the elementary and secondary education must be provided free of charge to all students. Thus, in order to determine which supplies shall be provided to students at no cost, we must first determine which supplies are, in fact, integral and fundamental to a free education.”

I’d suggest that the Interpretation be shared with your building administrators, as many likely were not around when the topic was an issue. The Interpretation provides helpful suggestions on what is integral and fundamental, what is not, suggested recommendations for language in back-to-school supply lists, and addresses the unique nature of performance-based classes such as band, orchestra, dance, theatre, and choir.