SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's elementary school children are guaranteed a free education in the state constitution, but a state lawmaker wants to make it clear that doesn't necessarily include items such as glue, scissors and notebooks.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, is sponsoring a resolution that would amend the constitution so schools could ask students to voluntarily provide their own school supplies.
State law prohibits elementary schools from charging anything resembling a fee.
Courts have ruled that means teachers can ask students to bring school supplies they might have at home, but they can't ask them to bring specific items. That's resulted in a complex set of rules governing what schools can ask students to voluntarily bring to class.
The State Office of Education has developed five pages of guidelines to help parents and teachers understand what types of fees are allowable and which are not.
For example, teachers can ask elementary students to bring in construction paper, but not a specific size, color or amount of it, said Carol Lear, an attorney for the Utah State Office of Education.
"It's when the teachers in elementary school want them to bring 10 folders in these colors, a certain brand of pencil, this kind of box to hold them all. When it gets very prescriptive, then it's in violation," she said.
Powell says that confusion has resulted in several problems.
First, he says some teachers are afraid to ask students to bring in anything to class, resulting in them paying for supplies out of their own pockets. He also says school budgets are being drained to pay for basic things like pencils that he contends parents should be paying for.
"I think that to the extent that parents are able to help defray the cost of their own child's education, they should be asked to do so," he said.
That's what occurs at the middle school and high school level, where the state constitution allows fees to be charged. Waivers exist for families that can't afford certain supplies.
"I would never want my proposal to be interpreted to ever require or make any parent feel like they're required to come up with supplies with money they don't have as a family," he said.a
Powell acknowledges his proposal would affect parents in some districts more than others. He's not sure exactly how low-income families and poorer districts would pay for the school supplies, but he believes it is something that could be worked out.
His proposal is one that's drawn vocal opposition from some state school board members who fear the proposal is one that would allow the state to shirk its financial responsibility when Utah already spends less per student than any state in the country.
"The idea of financing our education system by parents and children bringing in their own supplies — that's a diversion from what is really supposed to be happening — that is the school system in this state is supposed to be financed by the Legislature," said board member Leslie Brooks Castle, who represents Salt Lake City.
"It's really a relinquishment. It really is a way to discriminate against people who don't have as much."
Powell's resolution, which if approved by lawmakers would go before voters in 2012, doesn't specify what constitutes school supplies and leaves the question open to interpretation.