Parental Involvement: Legal Issues
Famous Court Cases
say education law is one of the fastest-growing legal fields, but that
everybody is getting lawsuit-happy when it comes to issues in schools. What's
the lay of the land in school law?
Education is so important in our society that it's a
massive area for the law. It may seem as if the schools are acting arbitrarily
in some of the things they do: enroll the children of illegal aliens in public
schools at taxpayer expense, for example, which would seem to be a gigantic
financial reward for breaking immigration laws.
But schools are just trying to follow the law in situations
like that, because they are SUPPOSED to do that, under a 1982 U.S. Supreme
Court decision, detailed below.
It's hard to say whether the climate really is as litigious
as educators claim. But since education is in the vortex of hundreds of
billions of dollars of spending, plus political and governmental differences,
plus people's dearly-guarded sovereignty over their own children, you bet there
are going to be a lot of court cases involving education. Here are some of the
Meyer v. Nebraska
The preferences of the parents are
constitutionally more important than the preferences of the State in education.
In this case, parents were allowed to let a teacher in a private Christian
school teach a 10-year-old boy in German, even though a Nebraska state law at
the time prohibited foreign-language instruction in schools in the post-World
War I era.
Pierce v. Society of
The court ruled that states can't
force children to go to public schools and submit to government standardization
if that violated their sincerely-held religious convictions. Children are not
"mere creatures of the State," this law set out. The State of Oregon had
enacted a compulsory education law that required attendance of all children
ages 8-16 in public schools, in what was said to be an attempt to destroy
Oregon's Catholic schools because of bigotry.
State Board of Education v. Barnette
Students cannot be forced to salute the
Everson v. Board of
This case was the
beginning of a stricter enforcement of a separation between Church and State in
K-12 education. Even though the high court ruled 5-4 that it was all right to
reimburse parents who send their children to Catholic schools with taxpayer
dollars offsetting their transportation costs, taxpayer dollars to a private
school with a faith-based approach to education violated the Establishment
Clause of the First Amendment. The case came out of New Jersey,
where local school boards were allowed to reimburse parents for the costs of
transportation to and from schools, including Catholic schools.
A citizen complained that that
was indirect aid that helped religious instruction at taxpayer expense. Though
the Court said that reimbursement was proper, it set down a precedent about the
importance of the separation between Church and State in educational matters.
This case is sometimes criticized as showing an anti-Catholic bias since four
justices voted against the reimbursement.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.
segregation of schools was ended because all citizens have "equal protection
under the law." In Topeka, an African-American student named Linda Brown had to
walk five miles to the local school that enrolled minority students, when a
"white" school was right across the train tracks from her home.
Engel v. Vitale
unconstitutional to have an official school prayer to start the school day
under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Here's the prayer banned by this Long Island, N.Y., case, similar to others
around the country at that time: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee,
and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country.
Abington v Schempp
It is unconstitutional for a school to require that at least 10
Bible verses be read aloud at the beginning of each day, since religious
instruction by a public school violates the First Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution. This case, out of Pennsylvania, did not preclude the use of the
Bible as a teaching tool of history and literature, just its use as a tool for
Epperson v. Arkansas
An Arkansas statute banned the teaching of human evolution as fact
in public schools, but the high court ruled that state and local officials
cannot remove ideas from the course of study in public schools simply because
those ideas conflict with the beliefs of religious groups, and that schools
must maintain religious neutrality.
Tinker v. Des Moines
Students have the First Amendment
right to free speech as long as the exercise of them isn't materially
disruptive to the school day. The court rules it was legal for teenagers to
wear black armbands to their high school in protest of the Vietnam War, because
"students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates."
Lemon v. Kurtzman
Pennsylvania was reimbursing private schools for teachers'
salaries, textbooks, and instructional materials, as long as the courses were
secular or non-religious in nature, the same as in public schools, and the
curriculum was approved by the State. However, the practice was thrown out as
constituting "excessive entanglement" between government and religion. The
court also set up "The Lemon Law," to be used in future cases deciding whether
there has been sufficient separation of church and state in various matters. A
state law must have a secular, non-religious purpose; the effect of the law
must neither advance nor inhibit religion; the money should flow to the parents
and not to the schools, and it shouldn't foster over-involvement of church and
Wisconsin v. Yoder
Homeschooling is an "enduring
tradition" in the United States, and Amish families didn't have to keep their
kids in school past eighth grade because that requirement violated their
freedom of religion.
Rodriguez v. San Antonio
Education is not a fundamental right
under the federal Constitution, so those who were seeking "funding equity" for
schools in less-advantaged areas went to the state courts. The basic claim is
that the property tax base per pupil is a lot less in low-income school districts,
so there should be more tax support collected from statewide sources and
distributed to the low-income districts, to balance out the revenues for rich
and poor within a given state. There have since been "equity" or "adequacy"
school-financing lawsuits in 45 of the 50 states, with landmark cases in
Kentucky and Montana.
Parham v. J.R.
This case had to do with the rights of
a minor child with mental health issues, but the majority opinion, written by
the late Chief Justice Warren Burger, included a strong endorsements of
parents' rights. In quoting past decisions in American law, Burger wrote that
parents "have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare
(their children) for additional obligations." He said that parents have the
maturity, experience and judgment that children and youth lack, so it is
natural for parents to have authority over their children. However, parents outrank
school officials, too, because of the "natural bonds of affection" between
parents and children that leads parents to act in the individual child's best
interests much more often than the school bureaucracy does. This quote is
famous from this case: "The statist notion that governmental power should
supercede parental authority in all cases because some parents abuse and
neglect children is repugnant to American tradition."
Plyler v. Doe
Public schools have to allow the
children of illegal aliens to enroll, and state and local tax bodies have to
pay the costs.
Island Trees School District v. Pico
Books in a school library that the school board deemed "antiAmerican,
antiChristian, antiSemitic, and just plain filthy" could not be banned
because they were not required reading, and school boards do not have the right
to prescribe what is "orthodox" in books or to remove or suppress ideas in
Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier
Student journalists don't have the same "public forum" as adult
journalists. They must obey censorship decisions by school officials since the
school newspaper is produced as part of the school curriculum, under the
guidance of a teacher during school hours, and students receive a grade for
their work. Thus the publication thus bears the "imprimatur," or stamp of
approval, of the school. The principal in this case banned student newspaper
content about pregnancy and divorce because he felt the pregnant student was
identifiable, and the adult subject of a derogatory article was not given a
chance to present his point of view.
Community Board of Education v. Mergens
This suburban Omaha district shot itself in the foot when it took
a teenage girl all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for starting an
after-school Bible club in the school. She wanted it to be treated like any
other extracurricular activity: to be able to advertise and have stories in the
school newspaper, be pictured in the yearbook, put meeting notices on bulletin
boards, and have the same access to free meeting space as other after-school, non-curriculum
related student groups like the chess club or community service clubs. Instead,
the school board sued to try to shut her down, claiming that allowing the Bible
club after school would be endorsing a particular religion. But the high court
ruled that they were wrong, and the teenage girl was right, under the Equal
Access Act, ensuring the rights of student-initiated clubs on government school
property without "viewpoint discrimination."
were declared constitutional under the First Amendment, even though sometimes
they funnel money from state taxpayers to private, religious schools in this
landmark case out of Cleveland, Ohio. The state's voucher plan provided $2,250
a year to some parents of students in the Cleveland City School District to
attend participating public or private schools in the city and neighboring
suburbs; it also allocated tutorial aid for students who remained in public
school. Far more families applied for the vouchers than there was funding for
them, and about eight out of 10 of the participating private schools had a
religious affiliation. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that vouchers to
private schools were allowable as long as the school's program had a valid
secular purpose, the aid was going to the parents and not to the schools, a
broad class of beneficiaries were participating, voucher allocation was neutral
with respect to religion, and there must be adequate nonreligious options.
Grove Unified School District v. Newdow
An atheist father who didn't have custody of his young daughter
wanted to force schools to quit the long-time practice of having teachers lead
the Pledge of Allegiance because it contains these words: "under God." The
girl's mother didn't mind, but the father fought it all the way to the U.S.
Supreme Court, where he lost, 8-0.
A class action suit out of San Francisco in 2000 alleged that
schools in California were offering less educational opportunity for low-income
children and English Language Learners than for middle-income children. The
suit alleged that the teaching quality, books, and school conditions were worse
in low-income schools. The case was settled out of court and resulted in an
extra $1 billion allocated to equalize conditions, including the phasing out of
the chaotic and expensive "multi-track" year-round school calendar. Other
states have taken note and taken steps to equalize their systems, too.
Unfortunately, the additional money has not paid off in terms of improved test
scores; indeed, they are going down in California.
Council of School
Attorneys lists the legal issues in schools on the website of the National
School Boards Association. A good 1-page synopsis is available at: