The U.S. Supreme Court often hands down a flurry of rulings toward the end of its term, and this year is no exception. What set last week apart, for those of us in the education world, was that we got three school law rulings. So here we go:
The special ed case
First, the Court gave us a long-awaited answer to the question of whether parents of a student who never has received special education services in public school can place their child in private school and get public reimbursement. With Justice Anthony Kennedy recusing himself in earlier cases on this question, the Court hadn’t been able to rule definitively.
But last week in Forest Grove v. T.A., the Court ruled that Oregon parents who’d initially agreed with their school district that their son was not eligible for special education services but later pulled him out, without notifying the district, and put him in a residential school, could sue to get reimbursed for the tuitionover $5,000 a month. The details of the ruling, the dissenting opinion, the background on the case, and NSBA’s friend-of-the-court brief all are available starting here, courtesy of NSBA’s Legal Clips.
The big question on everyone’s mind is what kind of fallout we can expect: Will parents who’d like a taxpayer-paid private school education for their children be less inclined to try to work in good faith with their public schools? NSBA General Counsel Francisco Negron tells NPR that this is the scenario that worries schools, and it surely isn’t what Congress had in mind. In the Los Angeles Times, NSBA Deputy General Counsel Naomi Gittins expresses hope that the impact will be limited, since “Most parents do try to work with the school district.” Charles P. Conroy, executive director of a Massachusetts private school, offers reassurance in a Boston Globe op-ed. In this entry on his Education Front blog, Dallas Morning News columnist William McKenzie agrees with the decision but worries that it “could cost districts a boatload of money.” Wall Street Journal columnist and blogger Sue Shellenbarger has mixed feelings.
The media flurry case
The case that got the most intense media interest was, naturally, the Arizona strip search case, Safford Unified Sch. Dist. #1 v. Redding, which BoardBuzz wrote about here. Here, again, the Court ruled that the search of a thirteen-year-old girl suspected of concealing pills went too far, given the limited danger from prescription Ibuprofen and the lack of any reason to think she was hiding the pills in her underwear. Luckily, though, the Court agreed that on a question like this, where even the judges themselves disagree so much, the law isn’t so clear cut that the educators should be personally liable if they made the wrong call. Again, Legal Clips has all the details and background starting here.
The implications? Well, for starters, Gittins tells McClatchy, school officials “will think long and hard before they authorize a strip search in the future.” That’s probably not a bad thing. But on NPR Negron warns that, as we said last week, the decision also casts uncertainty on searches for other kinds of dangerous contraband, like weapons. And even when it comes to what may seem like more minor threats, he reminds CNN, “The home medicine cabinet now poses a serious threat to students, who may take those medications for abusive purposes.” Watch for future litigation over how “dangerous” something is, he predicts.
The sleeper case
The third case was more obscure and very complex, but it was a biggie in a nation where public schools are tackling the enormous educational challenges of an incredibly diverse student population, and have limited resources ot get the job done. Horne v. Flores was an appeal of lower court rulings that the state of Arizona violated the federal Equal Educational Opportunity Act (EEOA) by failing to fund English language learner programs adequately. The state never complied with the lower court’s order to come up with some rational connection between the needs and the funding provided, but some state officials argued the situation had changed so much since then that the state shouldn’t have to.
The Supreme Court ruled that the lower courts must consider more carefully certain subsequent changes in the educational situation which may mean Arizona no longer is violating the EEOA and should be relieved from complying with the orders on funding. Details from Legal Clips on the case, including Justice Stephen Breyer’s blistering dissent, start here. The Arizona Republic reports on reactions to the ruling here.
One thing that had education and civil rights advocates worried was an argument that the state’s progress with ELL students under No Child Left Behind automatically meant that the state also was complying with the EEOA. An “enormous can of worms” was how NSBA Senior Staff Attorney Tom Hutton described that argument in the journal Diverse: Issues in Higher Education when the case was argued: “How would this play out in the special education context? I have a hard time believing the court would go there.”
And in the end it didn’t go therenot quite, anyway. While the Court rejected the idea that NCLB compliance = EEOA compliance by definition, it did say NCLB was relevant to the question of whether overall circumstances have changed sufficiently that Arizona no longer is violating the EEOA. That’s the question the lower court will have to reevaluate now. The Associated Press reports that the lawyer representing the plaintiffs welcomes the opportunity.
The Supremes to school officials
After such a busy week shaping school law, perhaps it’s fitting that a speech Chief Justice John Roberts gave over the weekend generated a message for school officials. The Associated Press reports that the Chief Justice said they shouldn’t “look to the Supreme Court to set school rules, only to clarify them when officials have abdicated that responsibility.”
Roberts called the Court’s rulings “clarity intended to deal with narrow issues that surface from government actions,” adding, “You can’t expect to get a whole list of regulations from the Supreme Court. That would be bad. We wouldn’t do a good job at it.”
True enough. But the downside of narrow guidance probably is more lawsuits, as everyone learns how to apply these rulings.