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Parental Involvement: Legal Issues

Famous Court Cases


Q. They 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 biggies:



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 Sisters


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.



West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette


Students cannot be forced to salute the American flag.



Everson v. Board of Education


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.


Racial 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


It's 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. Amen."



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 spiritual guidance.



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 state.



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 schools.



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.



Westside 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."



Zelman v. Simmons-Harris


School-choice vouchers 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.



Elk 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.



Williams v. California


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.



Homework: The 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:


By Susan Darst Williams Parental Involvement © 2012


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