Education Opinion

Administrators Share the Blame For ‘Teachers v. School’ Cases

By George N. Schmidt — January 25, 1984 3 min read

Ivan B. Gluckman’s “Students and Teachers v. School” (Education Week, Nov. 2, 1983) is a fascinating study of the problem of litigation against school districts, but not for the reasons he may think.

Rather than being an indictment of the role of the courts in protecting the rights of teachers and students against the arbitrary power of school administrators, the article is a good example of the administrative mindset that makes such litigation a necessity in the first place.

Mr. Gluckman argues that suits filed against school districts and administrators by teachers and students, usually under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, are often spurious and serve more than anything else to undermine the ability of school boards and administrators to control faculty and strengthen discipline.

Having been a successful plaintiff in a First-Amendment case against the Chicago board of education, I feel qualified to talk about the problems in Mr. Gluckman’s analysis.

The case (Substitutes United for Better Schools [SUBS] v. Rohter), ultimately restricted the power of the general superintendent of the Chicago public schools to restrict the distribution and sale of publications to teachers and other staff in the schools.

In January 1980, after more than a year of unsuccessful attempts to obtain approval for the distribution in the Chicago schools of a monthly tabloid newspaper called Substance, SUBS sued the Chicago board of education, then-General Superintendent Angeline Caruso, and Katherine Rohter, president of the board. We charged that the board’s attempt to ban our newspaper violated the First Amendment.

At the time, the board of education had a rule that required teachers’ organizations to obtain the superintendent’s approval before selling or distributing literature. We had asked the superintendent for permission several times and were always told no. The actual lawsuit was prompted by an official “ban” order and the threat of arrest against a number of teachers who tried to sell the paper during lunch to their colleagues.

The issue was simple: Does an organization of teachers have the right to publish and sell a newspaper dealing with local educational issues without interference from school administrators?

Every few months, we asked the board of education to settle the case because they were sure to lose. We pointed out the mounting legal costs to the school system and the clarity of the constitutional arguments in our favor. They always refused. During the period of litigation, the Chicago public-school system went through three general superintendents and two complete boards of education. These various officials were able to agree on few things, but one was the necessity to continue their prosecution of this case.

By June 1980, the U.S. District Court in Chicago had issued a preliminary injunction ordering the superintendent to rescind the “ban” order. (When she failed to do so until February 1981, the court held the board of education in contempt and fined it a symbolic $500.) The board continued to press its case even after that, finally losing when the court issued its decision and a permanent injunction at the end of the 1980-81 school year. It is impossible for us to know the total cost of the case to the school system, but they at least had to pay over $12,000 in attorney’s fees for our side.

All of this brings me to the fundamental flaw in Mr. Gluckman’s analysis: the assumption that school administrators should and must have virtually unrestricted power if “reform” is to succeed. The simple facts are that reform in a democracy must be done democratically and that school administrators do not always know best.

John Dewey said it best: “Democracy in Education, Education for Democracy.” But Mr. Dewey’s famous phrase should be more than rhetoric--it must constantly be given substance.

Perhaps if American school administrators spent less time bemoaning the expansion of democracy in the public schools and more time and energy practicing it, we would be moving more quickly to reform that will work and last. It is disappointing (but, based on my experience, not surprising) that a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals would take the position Mr. Gluckman outlined. I find it interesting to contemplate the response of the NASSP were a local version of Education Week to pop up in every school district in the nation. Based on Mr. Gluckman’s thinking and my own experience, I’m almost certain that 100 more cases like the one we went through would result from their appearance, as school administrators continued to act as if the only opinions worth a public hearing were their own.

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 1984 edition of Education Week as Administrators Share the Blame For ‘Teachers v. School’ Cases