The headline the other day was about school book fees [Fee or no fee — that's OPRF's $340 question, News, March 2]. I got a chuckle out of that. My family has a long history with school book fees, and it all started with my father.
In the '60s, my father started looking into laws that school districts were routinely breaking. He settled on book fees. At that time the Illinois Constitution stated that all people in Illinois were entitled to a free education through secondary school. Now my father interpreted the law very strictly. If the law of the state said "free," then "free" it should be.
He stopped paying the book fees for his four grade-school children. One day the principal came into their classes and took all my siblings' books away. Some teachers cut them slack and allowed sharing. Some were mean about it. My dad sued. The administrators began calling my dad a "kook" and routinely belittled him in person and in the press. My brothers and sisters went to school for years without books.
Slowly the case wound its way through the court system. Most times my dad won. All the judge had to do was read the one sentence in the constitution that said "free," and they would rule in his favor. The administrators kept appealing. Finally, it reached the state Supreme Court and they ruled in his favor. The court said the state constitution said "free," and "free" it will be.
Well, you'd think that that would pretty much be the end of it, wouldn't you? But not for school administrators. They were so mad about the ruling that they made some "contributions" to Illinois legislators, who changed the Illinois Constitution in 1970, allowing the legislators to write whatever rules they wanted regarding book fees. They began charging book fees again right away.
After that fight my dad used to say, "Paul, you can't fight city hall," and, "It doesn't even matter when you're right, they rewrite the rules to make you wrong." But that never stopped him from seeing something wrong and still trying to right it with a lawsuit. The law books of the state of Illinois are full of his suits; he won most, because he never started a lawsuit without researching the law and being right. So thanks, dad, for giving us the example and the passion for doing what is right, even when no one else cares.
As for my brothers and sisters who went to school without books: One is a bilingual educator; one is a well-respected figure in the retail music industry; one is a world-renowned wildlife biologist; and the youngest, the one who probably suffered the most during the book-fee episode, spent her early career in health care, married and moved to England where her husband was knighted for his efforts at saving the planet. They now reside back here where they are paying book fees for their son at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Paul Hamer is a longtime Oak Park resident and business owner.