Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools

At issue in Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court’s only case on the topic, was whether educational officials violated a student’s right to a public school education because her mother could not afford the transportation fee, and state law did not require a local board that met specified state requirements to provide free transportation. The Court upheld the district’s right to charge such a fee.

Facts of the Case

Kadrmas arose because insofar as a school board was not required to provide student transportation to school, it charged a fee for such transportation of $97.00 per school year for families with one child and $150.00 for those with two children. The board charged the fee in order to defray transportation costs for students who lived in sparsely populated areas. When the plaintiff refused to accept the board’s transportation contract, she instead chose to transport her daughter to and from school on her own.

However, after the mother realized that driving her daughter was cost prohibitive, she unsuccessfully challenged the validity of the fee in state courts. More specifically, the Supreme Court of North Dakota engaged in a detailed discussion in rejecting the mother’s arguments that the transportation policy violated the state constitution’s requirement of providing free schooling for students. The court also ruled that the policy passed constitutional muster under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because even though not all school systems chose to adopt a policy of charging fees for transporting children to school, the board’s doing so was not discriminatory.

The Court’s Ruling

On further review, the Supreme Court affirmed in favor of the school board. The Court began by noting that insofar as the board enacted the transportation fee policy in the face of economic realities, it would have to uphold the underlying policy unless the plaintiff could demonstrate that it was patently arbitrary and lacked a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose.

At the heart of its analysis, the Court explained that the transportation fee was consistent with state statutory requirements and that it had a rational relationship to a governmental purpose. The Court was of the opinion that because the transportation fee was a means of assisting the government’s intent of allocating limited resources, the statute that permitted the board to charge a fee did not violate the Equal Protection Clause by impermissibly discriminating on the basis of wealth. In addition, the Court recognized that transportation is certainly different from charging fees for such items as tuition or instructional materials. To this end, the Court concluded that the board had the authority to exercise its option of charging the mother for the cost of taking her daughter to school, because transportation did not go to the essence of the state’s obligation of providing all students with a free public school education.

Patrick M. O’Donnell

See also Equal Protection Analysis; Transportation, Students’ Rights to

Legal Citations

  • Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools, 487 U.S. 450 (1988).