Federal law requires that children receive "free and appropriate" education. As part of this, there are several laws that govern federal and state education. This includes the administration and operation of schools, school sports, teaching methods, programs and materials.
There are also laws that deal with issues relating to faculty, staff and students, including discipline and discrimination based on race, color, national original, sex or disability in violation of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, Title IX of the Federal Education Amendments of 1972, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.
Suing schools is not a new phenomenon. After all, the civil rights movement began with a lawsuit that started in school in Brown vs. Board of Education. But at what point is suing more harmful than rewarding?
Florida - Failure to Properly Educate
Parents and students recently sued the Florida Board of Education based on accusations that Florida's public schools aren't properly educating children and are denying many young people the right to an education. The lawsuit claims too many children are failing crucial tests and dropping out of school. The lawsuit also pinpoints differences in education based on race.
Lawmakers and the board of education disagree with these accusations and maintain that students are getting a fair education. They warn that this lawsuit will do more harm than good because it will take hundreds of thousands of dollars for Florida to defend the lawsuit, and this money could instead be spent on the children.
The Education Commissioner, Eric Smith, was also sued and expressed his disappointment saying parents weren't seeing the progress that Florida has shown in the last decade.
Nonetheless, the lawsuit maintains that something must change in the state's public schools. And the plaintiffs are using the legal system to ensure that these changes occur.
New York - Class Size
New York City's Department of Education has also been sued by the city teachers' union and other groups for allowing classroom sizes to grow.
In 2006, the state gave the city $1.5 billion after a court ruling decided that the state wasn't ensuring New York City students were getting a sound basic education. Half of that amount was to go toward reducing class sizes.
However, January's suit claims that class sizes have actually increased despite the money and a reduction in student enrollment.
New York City's education officials dispute the allegations. They also explain that state and city budget cuts have made it difficult to reduce class size.
While it's important for parents and children to be able to express their concerns when they think their children aren't getting the best education possible, how far should it go? Can parents require more art lessons? Can they mandate daily gym classes?
Pennsylvania - Daily Gym Class
Students at Lionville Middle School in Pennsylvania used to have gym classes two out of every six days. The rest of the days were spent in music and reading skills classes. However, Jack Laughlin, an 11 year old who suffers from diabetes, recently got the school to rearrange schedules so daily gym classes are offered.
At first, school officials refused, claiming there was no compelling medical evidence to rearrange the schedule for Jack and that he could get the exercise he needs through a school walking club and intramural athletics. However, when his parents filed a complaint under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, school officials changed their minds.
This law requires school districts to give disabled students the same educational opportunities as their non-disabled classmates. The parents explained that since Jack has diabetes, he needed daily gym classes to recover from his post-breakfast sugar high.
Catch 22 - To Sue or Not to Sue?
Parents want to have a say in their children's education, and this is an important check against school officials to make sure they are properly doing their jobs and using funds properly. However, parents must also remember that it costs money to defend these lawsuits; money that would otherwise be spent on their children's education.
On the other hand, school officials seem more likely to act and create change only when faced with a lawsuit. This seems to be a Catch 22 if there ever was one.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Are lawsuits the best way to challenge a school system's practices on the whole? Won't a school board just ignore individual parents or taxpayers?
- What information does my school district have to give me if I want to know about school operation or finances?
- What should I do if I think school policy is negatively affecting my child? Is a lawsuit the answer? Can you help me with any solutions besides a lawsuit?