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Court Rejects Challenge to Oregon School Reform Law

By Mark Walsh — January 20, 1999 3 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to revive a broad legal challenge to Oregon’s 1991 education reform law by conservative parents who claimed its provisions infringed on their children’s “freedom of the mind.”

The parents’ case was backed by the American Family Association Law Center, a conservative religious organization based in Tupelo, Miss.

“Students have been compelled to answer questions about their most deeply held beliefs,” the group’s brief to the high court argued.

Without comment, the justices rejected the challenge, Tennison v. Paulus (Case No. 98-738), on Jan. 11.

The Oregon school reform law established higher academic standards for K-12 schools, alternative learning environments for students who do not succeed in traditional schools, and new assessments that lead to “certificates of mastery.”

Known as the Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century, the law is considered one of the more sweeping standards-based reform initiatives in the country.

A group of parents of current or former public schoolchildren challenged the law in a federal lawsuit. They argued that the law imposed “viewpoint discrimination” in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and that it interfered with how they rear their children in violation of their 14th Amendment right to substantive due process of law.

The parents argued that the new system, as interpreted by the state education department and school districts, forced a state-approved orthodoxy from students.

They cited some specific requirements that they found objectionable, including the state’s encouragement of districts to execute parent contracts, in which parents agree to support their schools or monitor the content of their children’s television viewing, for example.

The suit also cited a high school survey that asked students to rate their agreement with such statements as “I believe in a God who answers prayers” and “I love my parents.”

Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, rejected the parents’ lawsuit.

A federal magistrate judge said the suit was based on “hypothetical scenarios that simply do not exist.”

The appeals court said: “The Constitution does not prohibit a state from imposing an educational structure and philosophy on its public schools. The Oregon Educational Act does nothing more.”

The Oregon case is not the only parental challenge to standards-based reforms to reach the Supreme Court. In the next few weeks, the court is likely to act on the appeal of a similar challenge to Kentucky’s education reform law.

Affirmative Action

Separately, the high court last week let stand a federal appeals court ruling that reinstated the reverse-discrimination lawsuit of a white employee of the Texas Education Agency.

The case involves Karen H. Messer, a former management and budget director in the state education agency who alleged she was denied two promotions because of her gender and race.

Her lawsuit said the agency cited its federally mandated affirmative action plan as the basis for hiring decisions that included efforts to bring more males and minorities into its workforce. But the agency also adopted affirmative action goals on its own that were based on promoting diversity and not on remedying any past discrimination, Ms. Messer’s court papers argue.

A federal district court dismissed Ms. Messer’s suit, but a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, based in New Orleans, reinstated part of it.

The appeals court said that even an affirmative action plan required as part of a contract with the federal government must be designed to counteract past discrimination in order to be held constitutional. It also said there were factual issues in Ms. Messer’s case that needed to be resolved in a federal district court.

The high court declined without comment to hear the state’s appeal in Texas Education Agency v. Messer (No. 98-535).

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 1999 edition of Education Week as Court Rejects Challenge to Oregon School Reform Law