Education-Related Issues in the Supreme Court’s 1990 Term

September 26, 1990 6 min read

The following is a summary of key education-related issues that are before the U.S. Supreme Court as it prepares to begin its 1990 session next week.

School Desegregation

Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell (Case No. 89-1080), which has been accepted by the Court and is scheduled for oral argument on Oct. 2, poses a crucial unresolved issue in the field: What desegregation obligations, if any, does a school district that was once segregated by law have after the courts have declared the system “unitary,’' or fully integrated? (See Education Week, April 4, 1990.)

The case centers on the Oklahoma City school board’s decision in 1985--eight years after a federal district judge had declared the district unitary--to end mandatory busing of students in grades 1 through 4 in favor of a system of neighborhood schools. As a result of the move, black enrollment in 11 of the district 64 elementary schools rose to above 90 percent.

A federal appeals court struck down the district’s new student-assignment plan in 1989. Even after a district has been declared unitary, the court said, desegregation orders governing it remain in effect absent “a clear showing” by district officials “of grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions.”

In addition, school officials in DeKalb County, Ga., Topeka, Kan., and Denver have asked the High Court to specify the conditions under which a district can be declared unitary. (See Education Week, May 9, 1990.)

In the Dekalb County case, Freeman v. Pitts (No. 89-1290), a federal appeals court in 1989 overturned a lower court’s decision that the district had fulfilled its desegregation obligations regarding student assignment, transportation, facilities, and extracurricular activities--though not faculty and staff assignments--and thus was relieved of court supervision in those four areas. A district can be declared unitary, the appeals court said, only if it simultaneously maintains racial equality in all six areas for at least three years.

The landmark Topeka case, now named Board of Education v. Brown (No. 89-1681), questions whether a district seeking unitary status must prove not only that it has remedied all segregation once mandated by law, but also that it has made every effort to achieve the greatest possible degree of desegregation.

A federal district judge declared the district unitary in 1987, saying that he found “no illegal, intentional, systematic, or residual separation of the races” in the system. A federal appeals panel reversed that ruling in 1989, saying the district failed to show that it had achieved the “maximum feasible” degree of desegregation.

In another landmark desegregation case, School District No. 1 v. Keyes (No. 89-1698), Denver school officials are contesting a federal district judge’s decision in 1987 not to declare the district unitary. Instead, the court dissolved prior desegregation orders in the case but continued court supervision over the school district in the form of an injunction requiring the system to maintain racial balance in its schools. A federal appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling last January.

The Rights of Teachers

In Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association (No. 89-1217), which was accepted by the Court last June but has not yet been scheduled for argument, the Justices have agreed to decide what types of costs teachers’ unions can assess against nonmembers. (See Education Week, June 20, 1990.)

The case involves six faculty members at Ferris State College in Michigan. In papers filed with the Court, they have asked whether the union, a National Education Association affiliate, can use such “agency fees” to finance union activities on behalf of employees who are not members of the bargaining unit; lobbying at the state and federal levels that does not specifically relate to the bargaining unit; electoral politics; public relations; professional and educational activities; meetings of affiliates; and activities related to illegal strikes.

In Strong v. Board of Education of Uniondale Union Free School District (No. 90-278), the Court has been asked to decide whether a New York school board can force a tenured teacher to turn over her confidential medical records as a condition of returning to work. Federal district and appellate courts have ruled that the board’s demand did not violate the teacher’s implicit right to privacy under the Constitution.

The Rights of Students

In D.T. v. Independent School District No. 16 (No. 89-1834), the Court has been asked to rule on the obligation of school officials to protect students against sexual abuse.

The case stems from a June 1984 incident in which three 5th-grade boys were molested by a basketball coach the night after an off-campus fund-raising event. The boys’ parents charge that their children’s right to substantive due process under the 14th Amendment was violated because school officials had failed to investigate completely several allegations that the coach was a pedophile.

A jury impaneled by a federal district court ruled in favor of the families and awarded them a total of $134,000 in damages. A federal appeals court reversed the decision, saying the school officials were not liable because the molestations occurred during summer vacation and because the parents had consented to the trip.

McCain v. Houston Independent School District (No. 89-1790) involves the two-day suspension of a high-school student in 1987 for allegedly possessing and consuming beer on campus. The girl and her parents have asked the Court to overturn lower courts’ rulings that her due-process rights had not been violated even though she was not granted a hearing prior to her suspension.

In Fee v. Herndon (No. 90-249), the Court has been asked to review a federal appellate ruling last year rejecting a Texas family’s attempt to collect damages from a school district for the allegedly excessive corporal punishment of a 12-year-old emotionally disturbed boy. The appeals panel held that the family was barred from suing in federal court because state tort remedies were available.

Church and State

The Justices have been asked to decide whether a public school that allows some community groups to rent its facilities must also open its doors to all other outside groups regardless of their religious, political, or philosophical orientation.

In Centennial School District v. Gregoire (No. 90-304), a federal appeals court ruled last June that the Pennsylvania district had to grant access to all groups on a nondiscriminatory basis because it had created a “limited open forum” by previously allowing more than 65 organizations to use its facilities.

In Shenandoah Baptist Church v. Dole (No. 90-16), the Court has been asked to decide whether the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and Equal Pay Act apply to church-operated schools. Federal district and appeals courts have rejected the church’s argument that the First Amendment’s religion clauses bar the U.S. Labor Department from forcing the church’s school to comply with the laws.

And in Mississippi Employment Security Commission v. McGlothin (No. 89-1726), the Justices have been asked to overturn a state supreme-court ruling that awarded unemployment benefits to a former Jackson teacher who was fired because she continued to wear a head wrap in defiance of her school’s dress code. The state court held that the teacher’s wearing of the head wrap represented religious and cultural expression protected by the First Amendment.

Day-Care Regulation

Arizona officials have asked the Court to overturn lower-court decisions that prohibited them from suspending the license of a private, for-profit day-care center without first holding a hearing.

The case, Brandt v. Chalkboard Inc. (No. 90-270), began in 1985 when a parent called the Tucson police to report that her child had been sexually molested at the center. The state summarily suspended the center’s license after an investigation turned up complaints by other parents that their children had been physically abused.

A federal district court overturned the suspension, however, saying that the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause required that a hearing be held before the license could be revoked. A federal appeals court upheld that decision last May.

Twenty-two state attorneys general have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of the Arizona officials.--tm

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 1990 edition of Education Week as Education-Related Issues in the Supreme Court’s 1990 Term