Wednesday, December 4, 2013
North Carolina Court of Appeals Holds that State Board Can Refuse to Act on Virtual Charter School Application
The North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld a superior court's decision yesterday that the State Board of Education could refuse to act on a virtual charter school's application. According to North Carolina station WRAL.com, the appellate court found that "[u]nder state law, the State Board of Education 'is vested with sole authority regarding charter schools in North Carolina, including all decisions regarding the formation and operation of such school.' " The case highlights some of the complexities of having parallel authorizing procedures for new schools. When the North Carolina legislature lifted the 100-school cap on charter schools in 2011, it did not address virtual charter school programs. Following the new law, the State Board of Education (SBE) developed a “Fast Track” approval process limited to traditional charter schools. In November 2011, a nonprofit organization called North Carolina Learns (NCL), created by online education company K12, Inc., submitted a Fast Track application to open the North Carolina Virtual Academy. NCL and K12, Inc., brokered a deal in 2012 with the Cabarrus County's School Board to set up a charter school with a statewide reach. According to WRAL.com, NCL agreed to pay 4 percent of its revenue to the school system in Cabarrus, located north of Charlotte, as well as pay K12." NCL was approved to open by the Cabarrus County Board of Education (CCBE), with the caveat that “[i]f the preliminary charter entity is other than the State Board of Education please contact the Office of Charter Schools for guidance.” NCL did not do that, but did forward its application to the SBE. The SBE did not respond, having announced in October 2011 (before NCL's application) that it would not approve any virtual charter schools in the 2012-13 school year. The rebuff prompted NCL to sue, arguing that the SBE's failure to respond to NCL's application within the Fast Track period stripped the agency of jurisdiction over the matter. NCL argued that its application should be approved by operation of law. See N.C.G.S. § 115C-238.29D(a). Last year, a North Carolina Superior Court judge held that SBE was within its discretionary power to ignore NCL's application, reasoning that a local board of education "is not experienced in, nor equipped as the SBE, with the staff and know-how to review, evaluate, and approve the application of a charter school designed to serve a statewide clientele, nor is it authorized to give final approval for such operation." Read more about North Carolina State Board of Education v. North Carolina Learns, Inc. here.
Monday, December 2, 2013
Wisconsin Student Speech Decision Reverses on First Amendment Grounds but Affirms Adjudication on Unlawful Computer Use
While the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed a student’s disorderly conduct juvenile adjudication on First Amendment grounds last week, the appellate court curiously affirmed the adjudication for violating a state unauthorized-use-of-a-computer statute for the same conduct. Those who follow the developing law of federal unauthorized use statutes will recognize the bedeviling issues that arise when defendants are prosecuted for protected First Amendment speech because of the method used to deliver that speech--a computer. The Wisconsin student, Kaleb K., was prosecuted under state disorderly conduct and unauthorized computer use statutes after posting a YouTube video about his Spanish teacher. At trial, the lower court rejected Kaleb's claim that “the content of his rap was protected by the First Amendment, which barred the State from prosecuting him for disorderly conduct.” The trial court’s findings focused on the rap’s vulgar language without addressing the student’s First Amendment defense. The lower court found the student delinquent for disorderly conduct for the video and for a violating a state law prohibiting the unlawful use of a computerized communication system. The unauthorized use law prohibits using computer communication to send a message to another person “with intent to frighten, intimidate, threaten or abuse … with the reasonable expectation that the person will receive the message and in that message uses any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggests any lewd or lascivious act.” The Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed Kaleb K.’s adjudication of guilt on the unlawful use of a computerized communication system under a state case holding that “nonspeech elements” of otherwise protected speech may be subject to prosecution. Given the Court of Appeals’ interesting split reasoning, this case may be headed to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. The case is In re Kaleb K., No. 2013AP839, 2013 WL 6182562 (Wis. Ct. App. Nov. 27, 2013).
Thursday, November 21, 2013
In 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued its momentous decision in Sheff v. O'Neill, becoming the first and only state high court to hold that racial isolation in the Hartford schools violated the state constitutional right to an equal education. Finding a remedy that everyone could agree on and comply with has been the challenge of the following decade and a half. The state would agree to a set of goals one year, only to be hauled back into court a year or two later with charges of non-compliance. Progress has not be a straight line, but has occurred. This year the state appears to have met it integration goals. While full integration is far from complete there, this year's numbers are a testament to what is possible and rejoinder to those who accept segregation as a given.
The Sheff Coalition Movement released this statement this morning:
The state has released 2013-14 enrollment figures for schools and programs covered by the Sheff v. O'Neill settlement agreements. Over 19,000 students are now participating in the Hartford region's innovative two way voluntary school integration programs. This figure includes all city and suburban students attending regional magnet schools, Hartford students participating in Open Choice, and Hartford students attending regional technical and agricultural high schools.
The state has also exceeded its 2013 goal of 41% of Hartford minority children in "reduced isolation settings" (see calculation below*) - and this number includes over 38% of Hartford children now attending racially and economically integrated schools (schools that meet or are approaching the regional integration standard).
In spite of this important progress, the state is still unable to meet the growing demand for integrated school options. The Sheff Movement coalition has called for a doubling of the integration goal in the next five years.
"These enrollment figures are good news as we move into the next phase of Sheff implementation," said Elizabeth Horton Sheff, co-chair of the coalition, "It shows we have a healthy growing system and that is working. But 41% is not enough - we need to keep growing this system so all children have the ability to attend diverse schools."
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed yesterday a lower court's decision that a teacher could be fired for insubordination, thus avoiding a constiutional question of whether his teaching creationism and intelligent design in science classes imposed religious values on students. John Freshwater was a tenured high school science teacher who worked in the Mount Vernon City School District for twenty years. He had never been disciplined, even though he taught creationism and intelligent design in his eighth grade science classes, a violation of the school district's Academic Content Standards. The school board asked Freshwater to remove religious displays in his classroom such as the Ten Commandments and a poster depicting a Biblical verse above a photograph of former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell in prayer. The district also warned Freshwater not to proceed with a plan to “critically examine” evolution in his science class. Freshwater ignored both dictates. Freshwater was fired in 2007 after using a Tesla Coil to make a cross on a student's arm that lasted over a week. (He denied intending to do so.) The Mount Vernon City School Board terminated Freshwater for cause because he "injected his personal religious beliefs into his plan and pattern of instructing his students that also included a religious display in his classroom," and for insubordination. Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Edn., 2012-Ohio-889 (Ohio Ct. App. Mar. 5, 2012). The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday found the record supported Freshwater’s termination for insubordination in failing to comply with orders to remove religious materials from his classroom. The Court agreed that the district complied with the First Amendment by not allowing a public school teacher to “engage in any activity that promotes or denigrates a particular religion or religious beliefs while on board property, during any school activity” or when he was teaching." Because the court found that good cause existed for Freshwater's termination, it declined to reach the constitutional issue of "whether Freshwater impermissibly imposed his religious beliefs in his classroom." Read Freshwater v. Mt. Vernon City School Dist. Bd. of Ed. here.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
The lion's share of education law cases involve students, teachers, and organizations suing school officials. Courts are often reluctant to engage in these cases, with school discipline being the prime example. I, of course, argue that our nation, as well as our schools, are bound by the rule of law. Thus, when constitutional and statutory rights are at risk, courts must engage in a full good faith analysis of the issues.
Yesterday brought news of Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction, Glenda Ritz, filing suit against the state board of education. She argues that Governor Mike Pence is attempting to strip her of constitutional authority as chair of the state board of education by encouraging the state board to hold secret meetings without her. Doing so, she argues, violates the state's open meetings law. The underlying substance of those meetings involves changing the quality rating system for the state's schools, a significant issue, of course.
I will keep you posted on the courts' receptivity to her claims.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
North Carolina Supreme Court Battles over School Finance and Pre-K While South Carolina's Sits on the Sidelines
North Carolina’s Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in its school finance case over whether the state must fully fund its pre-k program. The case is slightly more complicated than average because the state argues that the pre-k program is like any other education initiative and the state is free to change its funding and rules as it sees fit. The plaintiffs counter that the pre-k program was enacted as a remedy to demonstrated violations of students’ constitutional right to a sound basic education. As such, the state is not fee to renege on its commitment. I suppose the court could skirt both frameworks and instead base its decision on whether the current system, without a fully funded pre-k program, fails to deliver a sound basic education, but I am not sure that question was fully briefed or argued.
Regardless, I would expect a decision within the next six months. The North Carolina Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have been pretty good at moving school finance litigation through their dockets and to final decisions. The same cannot be said of their sister court to the south. The South Carolina Supreme Court issued its first decision in the Abbeville school finance litigation in 1999 and remanded for trial. The trial was completed in 2005 and made it back to the Supreme Court in 2008. The Supreme Court, however, let four years pass without issuing a decision and finally ordered rehearing, which was set for September 2012. We are now another 13 months past that second argument and five years past the first argument, leaving many to wonder how many generations will pass through the schools before a remedy, if it is to come, is ordered. November will be the 20 year anniversary of the commencement of the litigation.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
In a surprise move this past Thursday, the U.S. District Court for DC found that a lawsuit challenging DC school closures had alleged fast sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. The ruling was a surprise not because the plaintiffs claims lacked merit, but because the judge had been so dismissive of plaintiffs' claims at the preliminary injunction stage earlier this summer. Plaintiffs had alleged that the particular schools being closed would have a disparate impact on minority students and students with disabilities. In fact, plaintiffs' data showed that the only schools closed in recent years were minority schools. Moreover, the schools closed this summer enrolled 40% of the district's entire special education population. Plaintiffs had hoped to stop those closures before they occurred, as damage of this sort is nearly impossible to undo after the fact.
The court in its new opinion wrote: “The Court agrees with the District on the bulk of the Plaintiff’s claims. Nevertheless, the parents and guardians have alleged sufficient facts to state claims of discrimination under the three civil-rights provisions at the heart of their case: the Equal Protection Clause, Title VI, and the D.C. Human Rights Act.” Thus, while the court dismissed some of plaintiffs' claims, the heart of their case remains.
Sunday, October 13, 2013
Barring a settlement in the next year, the U.S. Department of Justice will go to trial against the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County in Mississippi. DOJ argues that local authorities lock up students for minor infractions like disrespect or vulgar language. The suit also alleges that students--disproportionately African American and disabled--are routinely detained without probable cause and denied legal counsel.
DOJ was also set to try the Meridian Public School District, but was able to reach a settlement agreement with the district this past summer. The district agreed to take various steps to end discrimination in its discipline program. It is not clear why the criminal justice system is holding out, but if this goes to trial and DOJ wins, which are both big ifs, the case could have a monumental impact in the fight against the pipeline.
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
As a matter of procedure, the data in Louisiana does not matter. Districts that have maintained de jure segregated schools and are still under court order to remedy the effects forfeit the right to assign students any way they want, even if their means are race nuetral. This has been the law for forty years. This legal principle is irrelevant in most post places because the vast majority of districts have been released from court order. But in other districts, courts are still there to look over their shoulders because these districts have not fixed the problem, nor proved that they can be trusted. Thus, as a matter of procedure, I still maintain no sympathy for Louisiana and its claims that it ought be free of second guessing.
Beyond the procedure, however, the facts are the facts, and new ones are coming out. When complying with court oversight, these desegregating districts should be free to move forward with any legitimate plans that do not negatively effect desegregation. According to DOJ, Louisiana had previously been less than forthcoming with the data necessary to make this determination. Now that the data is becoming available, it looks like some of the facts are favorable to Louisiana. According to a study published by Education Next, the voucher program improves racial balance in the vast majority of schools that students are leaving. (See their data to the left). Rick Hess, a national education commentator, uses these facts to say, in effect, I told you so, and jump on the bandwagon in criticizing and questioning DOJ's motions in this case.
But not so fast. Taking Ed Next and Hess's facts as true, it does not mean that the program is constitutional in its entirety. Desegregation orders are against individual school districts, so in those districts where vouchers increase segregation, they would be presumptively unconstitutional if the effect is more than minimal. In the other districts where racial balance improves racial balance, which is the vast majority, there is no problem and the programs can remain in place. In other words, how the program performs on the state level is largely irrelevant in terms of individual districts. Thus, the fallacy of Hess and others' reasoning is to only look at this program, on the averages, at the state level, instead of at the school and district level which is where segregation actually occurs. But to be clear, I do not have all the facts. The negative effects could be minimal in all of the school districts or overshadowed by other good things the state and district might be doing in within districts. Yet we do not know the answers to these things, hence my contention from the start that we should honor the judicial process and keep national politics over vouchers out of it.
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Several cases have come up in the past few years testing the boundaries of schools' authority to discipline students for on-line speech. The Supreme Court has yet to offer any direction in these cases, and inconsistencies abound among some lower courts. Fayette County Public Schools in Georgia avoided those thorny issues in a case that involved poking fun at a student, rather than punishing her. In a presentation on internet security and social media use that was open to the public, the district displayed a powerpoint slide that included a cartoon entitled “Once It's There—It's There to Stay.” The slide "featured a picture of [a current student] in a bikini standing next to a life-size cutout of singer Calvin 'Snoop Lion' Broadus (also known as 'Snoop Dogg'). [The district official] found this photo by browsing students' Facebook pages for pictures to use in his presentation. The picture was originally taken when [the student] accompanied a friend on her family's vacation, which [the student] contends did not involve sex or alcohol. The slide included [the student's] full name."
The student brought suit against the district, alleging violations of the 4th and 14th amendments, along with state law. The district court in Chaney v. Fayette Count Public School Dist., 2013 WL 5486829 (N.D. Georgia 2013), dismissed all the claims, largely on the rationale that the student had made the picture public. Leaving to the side whether the district was wise to use the photo, I think the court got it right. While students have legitimate objections regarding being punished for their on-line speech or having their privacy invaded, once they speak on-line and open their lives to the public, they likewise open themselves open to others commenting on it. After all, the listeners and viewers have free speech rights as well (subject to defamation and other analogous law).
Monday, October 7, 2013
Nearly a decade ago, a few graduates and current students from Maryland's historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), along with a local attorney or two, began questioning the funding and expansion practices of the state's entire university and college system. They filed suit, but soon found they were in for an enormous fight and needed more legal resources. With the help of John Brittain, the Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic agreed to take on the case. Professor Aderson Francois and his law students largely carried the law suit in the early days. They were later joined by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and pro bono attorneys from Kirkland and Ellis.
Yesterday, the plaintiffs' long road resulted in a victory. The United States District Court for Maryland found in Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education v. Maryland Higher Education Commission that, in fact, the state had engaged in unconstitutional action in regard to Maryland's HBCUs. The court rejected plaintiffs' claims that the state's funding practices were unconstitutional, but, on the all important issue of the overall structure of the Maryland system, the court wrote:
I find the plaintiffs have prevailed in establishing current policies and practices of unnecessary program duplication that continue to have a segregative effect as to which the State has not established sound educational justification. Remedies will be required.
In other words, the State formerly operated a de jure segregated higher education system. The constitution imposes a duty on the state to dismantle that system. The state's current practice of creating and expanding new programs at historically white institutions, which duplicate already existing programs at HBCUs that are right down the road, has the effect of keeping Maryland's colleges and universities segregated. By doing so, it is violating its constitutional duty to disestablish segregation.
The court did not issue a specific remedy, but directed the parties to enter into mediation and come up with a plan to current the system's deficiencies.
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Lincoln Brown, a middle school teacher in Chicago, was dismissed in the fall of 2011 for a discussion he lead in class about the n-word. In his sixth grade grammar class, he
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Even though Louisiana's fiscal effort levels rank at the bottom of the nation, its funding formula is slightly regressive (sending less money to the neediest districts), and many of its school facilities can only be described as deplorable, litigants have never been able to break through with a school funding victory. Courts have fallen back on the notion that the state constitution only requires a "minimum" education. See, e.g., Jones v. State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, 927 So.2d 426 (La. App. 1 Cir. Nov. 4, 2005); Charlet v. Legislature of the State of Louisiana, 713 So.2d 1199 ((La. App. 1 Cir. 1998). Although not an attack on the state's funding practices as a whole, litigants did get a victory earlier this year in Louisiana Federation of Teachers v. State, 2013 WL 1878913 (Supreme Court of Louisiana, 2013). See also LaJuana's post on the case from earlier this summer.
The case was brought by teachers, school boards and parents. The primary theory of the case was that the state's voucher program diverted funds away from public schools to non-public schools in violation of the state constitution. The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed, reasoning that while the state constitution only mandates a minimum education program, once the state determines the cost of the minimum program, it cannot then take a portion of those minimum funds and give them to nonpublic schools. Doing so necessarily drops support of the public schools below "minimum."
I revisit this case for two reasons. First, it is an example of courts' willingness to intervene in school funding if they can identify a technical violation, even if they they have previously indicated an unwillingness to address substantive questions of school funding. Recognizing this technical versus substantive approach, we have seen a few other cases this summer attack charters and/or vouchers on technical constitutional grounds. Second, this victory early this summer adds further context to the current DOJ lawsuit to block the voucher program (although it is not softening on the notion of "blocking" the program). The DOJ suit is based on federal desegregation law, whereas Louisiana Federation of Teachers is based on state law, but the plaintiffs victory this summer shows how embattled the state's voucher program is. Right or wrong, the Governor is understandably testy over one of the state's signature programs. He is obviously unwilling to let it sink without a big fight.
On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court held that the Atlanta Independent School System (“APS”) and the Atlanta Board of Education could not withhold $38.6 million from charter schools to pay APS’s pre-existing unfunded pension liability. Under Georgia law, local charter schools are entitled to a proportional share of its school system’s local revenue. Last year, the APS decided deduct money from local revenue for charter start-up schools to help cover a $550 million unfunded pension liability for APS employees that has been accruing since the 1980s. Charter schools sued to force APS to distribute the money without any deduction for APS’s pension liability, arguing that they should not have to pay for debts that they had not incurred. The Georgia Supreme Court agreed with the charter schools’ position that the statutory funding formula in Georgia’s Charter Schools Act did not authorize the APS to subtract the $38.6 million from its calculation of local revenue. The Supreme Court determined that because the statute established a separate and distinct local revenue funding formula for start-up charter schools, the General Assembly intended to fund local schools unequally with regard to local revenue. Read the opinion in Atlanta Independent School System, et al. v. Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, Inc., et al. here.
Monday, September 23, 2013
Just last week, I posted on a Connecticut court rejecting a student's cause of action under the state's anti-bullying statute. In contrast, the Old Bridge School Board in New Jersey settled an anti-bullying case for 60,000 last week. New Jersey's anti-bullying law is considered the toughest in the nation. It was a response to the public outcry over the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, in 2010. The explicit mandates and clarity of the New Jersey law seems to have made all the difference.
This clarity has a huge upside statewide. Knowing the risks of litigation, districts will respond quicker and more effectively to bullying. Those who do not will suffer the consequences. The trouble is discerning what amounts to "bullying" around the margins. All "bullying" is serious and I, in no way, mean to minimize it. Schools should be held accountable for the failure to stop it. But some schools overreact and punish behavior that is not bullying. From many schools' perspective, it is better to be safe (as in not get sued) than sorry. This is the same approach we saw schools take with zero tolerance policies on weapons and drugs, which has lead to the expulsion of children with finger clips, butter knives in their lunch boxes, and tylenol in their purse. New Jersey has apparently already seen some potential overreactions/over-broad applications with bullying. None of this is to find flaw in the law, but to point out the potential serious downside of applying laws without a good dose of common sense and judgment. Unfortunately, those dreaded professional development workshops might be of some use here.
Friday, September 20, 2013
In 2002, the Connecticut Legislature enacted an anti-bullying statute that directed schools to come up with policies and procedures to address and prevent bullying. In the wake of high profile bullying incidents that led to the victims' suicide or other serious harm, Connecticut reenacted and strengthened the statute in 2011. The current statute broadly defines bullying and harassment and provides that "Each local and regional board of education shall develop and implement a safe school climate plan to address the existence of bullying in its schools." Conn. Gen. Statute 10-222d. It further specifies 17 different responsibilities, structures, and procedures that must be included in the plan and complied with. Id. The statute does not include an explicit cause of action.
Some prior courts had addressed the existence of cause of action under the old version of the statute, but Mazzo v. Town of Fairfield Bd. of Educ., 2013 WL 4872203 (Sup. Ct. of Conn. 2013), appears to be a case of first impression regarding the newly enacted version of the statute. Plaintiff's primary argument appeared to be that Conn. Gen. Statute 10-222l evidences intent to create of cause of action because, while that section speaks to immunity, it conditions that immunity on good faith compliance with the statute. In other words, plaintiff argues that a basic failure to attempt to comply with the Act is not granted immunity and, thus, is actionable under the act.
Thursday, September 19, 2013
For those who dug a little deeper on the special education case I posted yesterday, Horton v. Boone Cnty. Sch. Dist., 2013 WL 4875025 (E.D. Kentucky 2013), you may have noticed an oddity. The plaintiff's claim was about the failure to properly implement the student's Rehabilitation Act Section 504 plan, but the court dismissed the claim for failure to exhaust IDEA administrative remedies. This struck me as odd and irrelevant, but I did not address it in my post because I was not sure of the right answer and I did notice that the plaintiff had cited to some Kentucky regulations, which looked to be IDEA implementing regulations. In other words, maybe there was an IDEA claim there and I just did not see it.
Mark Weber was nice enough to clarify the issue for me and point out what is another significant issue in cases of this sort. He offered the following:
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Is Pursuing Administrative Relief Futile After Graduation for Special Education Students? Court Says No
Dakota Horton enrolled in a new school in the fall of 2008. In his prior school, he had received services pursuant to a Section 504 plan, but when he enrolled in Boone County Schools, his 504 plan was never reviewed, notwithstanding his parents requests. In his senior year, he encountered problems in math and requested an accommodation. He did not receive it, did not pass the course, and was unable to graduate with his class in May of 2012. He did, however, graduate that summer. Apparently, this delayed graduation and the course structure affected his subsequent college opportunities and requirements.
He filed a claim against the district under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and IDEA. The district court dismissed his case for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies. Horton asserted that his administrative remedies were futile because he had already graduated from high school, but the district court in Horton v. Boone Cnty. Sch. Dist., 2013 WL 4875025 (E.D. Kentucky 2013), disagreed, finding that he still could have sought compensatory services from the district after the fact.