High Court Docket Includes Key School Cases

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Educators and policymakers are holding their collective breath over the fate of the Milwaukee school voucher program in the U.S. Supreme Court. But it is likely to be several weeks at least before the court even decides whether to review the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that upheld the program, which includes religious schools.

In the meantime, the federal high court opens its new term this week with two major education cases already on its docket.

Just last week, the justices decided to take up the issue of school district liability for peer sexual harassment. That case, Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (Case No. 97-843), is likely to be heard in January.

A Look Ahead

Among the school-related topics and cases that the Supreme Court will address this term are the following:

  • Peer sexual harassment:Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education
  • Special education:Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F.
  • Teacher rights:Boringv. Buncombe County Board of Education*
  • Drug testing:Todd v. Rush County Schools*
  • Sex discrimination:National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Smith
  • Statistical sampling:Department of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representatives

* The court has not decided whether to hear these cases.

In Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F. (No. 96-1793), the court will decide an important special education issue: whether a district must pay for continuous one-on-one nursing services for medically fragile students.

Lower federal courts have been split on whether services such as a full-time nursing aide for a severely disabled student are an education-related responsibility of districts under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Some courts have ruled that such needs are "related services" under the federal statute and thus a district's responsibility; others have held that they represent "medical services" for which districts are exempt.

In the high court case, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, district is appealing a ruling requiring it to pay for a full-time nursing aide for a 16-year-old quadriplegic boy identified as Garret F.

The district argues that the additional cost of the service would be about $28,000 a year. The boy's family disputes that figure but nonetheless argues that the federal special education law requires the provision of a full-time aide.

The National School Boards Association, in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in support of the school system, argues that districts "cannot shoulder the additional financial strain" of providing continuous one-on-one nursing service given what they already must spend on special education.

The justices will hear arguments in the case on Nov. 4.

Teacher Rights

The Supreme Court has a number of other significant school-law issues in its pipeline, which includes the more than 1,700 appeals that have piled up over the summer.

The rights of teachers to make decisions about materials presented in the classroom could be clarified in a case that is seeking the justices' attention. In Boring v. Buncombe County Board of Education (No. 97-1835), North Carolina teacher Margaret Boring is seeking redress for being transferred from her high school teaching job after selecting a controversial play, Lee Blessing's "Independence," for students to perform in a statewide competition.

Community members complained about the play's mature themes, and Ms. Boring was transferred for failing to follow the Buncombe County district's policy on controversial materials.

The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, based in Richmond, Va., ruled 7-6 earlier this year that districts have broad discretion to set the curriculum and that teachers have no First Amendment right "to participate in the makeup of the curriculum."

At least two other cases dealing with teachers' methods or selection of materials in the classroom also could reach the high court this term.

Another case awaiting review asks whether students involved in extracurricular activities can be subjected to drug testing. Since the Supreme Court authorized drug testing of student athletes in a 1995 case, many districts have sought to expand such testing to all students who voluntarily participate in any extracurricular activity.

Several lower federal courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, based in Chicago, have authorized such expansion of drug testing. In Todd v. Rush County Schools (No. 97-2021), an Indiana family is asking the high court to overturn the 7th Circuit ruling.

NCAA and Census Cases

The justices, meanwhile, have already decided to hear a handful of other cases that may be of interest to K-12 educators.

In National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Smith (No. 98-84), the court will review whether Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in education programs receiving federal funds, applies to the NCAA even though it is not a direct recipient of federal aid.

And in Department of Commerce v. U.S. House of Representatives (No. 98-404), the court will try to resolve the legal debate over the use of statistical sampling in the 2000 U.S. Census. The case has implications for urban school districts, since urban dwellers are disproportionately undercounted by traditional census methods and many federal aid programs use census figures in their distribution formulas.

Vol. 18, Issue 6, Page 24

Published in Print: October 7, 1998, as High Court Docket Includes Key School Cases
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