Published Online: March 12, 1997


Judge Strikes Challenge to Oregon Reform Measure

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A federal judge in Oregon has rejected a conservative-backed legal challenge to the state's comprehensive 1991 school reform law.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin of Eugene ruled that the lawsuit against state education officials and two school districts failed to pinpoint any constitutional violations and was "a near-empty bowl of watery soup."

The suit was backed by two conservative advocacy groups, the National Legal Foundation of Chesapeake, Va., and the American Family Association Law Center of Tupelo, Miss.

It alleged that Oregon had adopted an "outcomes based" educational approach that abandoned the teaching of facts and promotes government-decreed "feelings, attitudes, and beliefs."

The plaintiffs charged that while only school attendance was mandatory in the past, the current education law compels students to master subjects and thus violates the "freedom of the mind."

In his Feb. 26 ruling in Tennison v. Paulus, Judge Coffin said that the "plaintiffs are ringing hypothetical alarms in response to abstract language."

He reprinted an exchange from court hearings in which lawyers for the plaintiffs criticized the law for mentioning that students should learn "their place in global society."

Such an idea promotes "Hillary Clinton's village," a lawyer for the American Family Association said at one point, referring to the first lady's recent book, It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us.

The plaintiffs argued that the law imposes an "orthodoxy of belief" in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1943 ruling against compelling schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The state created a system of compelled learning in which "failure is not an option," the suit claimed.

Parental Argument Rejected

But Judge Coffin said that while traditional grades have been replaced by "certificates of mastery," the state is not doing any more to compel students to learn under the new system than under the old one.

"If failing is some sort of constitutional right, as plaintiffs urge, students still have that option," the judge wrote.

The judge also rejected the plaintiffs' claim that the reform law usurps parents' rights to direct their children's education.

The lawsuit argued that by embracing the goal of having the "best educated and prepared workforce" by 2000, the state placed parents' interests second behind those of the state and its economic interests. But the judge noted that the law does not bar parents from placing their children in private schools or from educating them at home.

Judge Coffin's ruling must be approved by a full U.S. District Court judge. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said that they will ask the district judge to reject the ruling.

"Apparently, we just haven't put enough meat on the bones" to show the substance of their case, said David Huggins, a lawyer with the NLF.

The ruling removes a cloud from the state law, said Tanya Gross, a spokeswoman for the state education department. "We just want to get on with the business of teaching our students."

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