The coronavirus pandemic has scrambled public school instruction, making it difficult for kids to learn, teachers to teach, and parents to manage it all.

But in Indiana, there’s one thing about public education the virus hasn’t stopped: school’s taking parents to court over textbook fees. According to a ProPublica investigation, the court cases are still being filed, often against parents who have lost jobs, or simply lack the resources to pay the fees and costs:

Indiana is one of at least nine states that allow school districts to charge fees for required textbooks, according to the Education Commission of the States, a national education policy organization.

The state reimburses districts for textbook rental and materials fees only for those who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. Otherwise, parents must pick up the bill. When they can’t or don’t pay, schools can file small claims lawsuits against them, resulting in added attorney fees and court costs.

Online court records show at least 38 school districts across Indiana listed as plaintiffs in small claims lawsuits since the beginning of the year. Of those, Mishawaka has filed the most cases since March, when the coronavirus began to spread across the country. (This tally does not include districts that may employ third-party debt collection agencies to pursue debt and file lawsuits on behalf of the districts.)

The process can begin to feed on itself:

If courts rule in favor of school districts, they can garnish parents’ wages. That could lead to evictions, leaving families struggling to find housing at a time when staying home is essential. And unpaid bills sent to collection agencies may surface on background reports used by landlords to screen potential tenants.

It’s an argument for leaving the public school monopoly for good. And another reason why school funding (federal, state, and local) should follow students – wherever they prefer to get their education – rather than going to bureaucracies.

Image Credit: Brian Turner / CC BY (