The U.S. Supreme Court is showering attention on education in its current term, even while its docket in some other areas seems to have entered a dry spell.
The justices as of Jan. 4 had accepted only 49 cases for full review in the term that began in October and runs till July, compared with 63 at the same point in the preceding term.
Court observers have been discussing the decline in cases in recent weeks, and speculating about possible causes. Among the theories: the justices’ caution about testing the apparent delicate philosophical balance of the court and the rise of conservative judges in the lower federal courts, which has resulted in fewer conflicts of interpretation that need to be resolved by the Supreme Court.
Experts note that the current total of granted cases will make it difficult for the court to equal the average of 80 cases that the justices have heard in recent terms. Twenty years ago, the court regularly heard about 150 cases per term. The justices will continue to add cases to this term’s docket for the next two weeks or so.
Education cases are an exception to the lower numbers, at least this term.
“Though the justices have fallen far short in the total number of cases, there are a few fields—education, the environment, and antitrust law—that will occupy an unexpectedly large proportion of the docket,” Thomas C. Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who specializes in Supreme Court practice, said in an e-mail.
So far at least six cases that the justices have accepted squarely involve public K-12 education, compared with four cases during the court’s entire 2005-06 term. The normal range for K-12 education cases getting full review is two to four cases per term. This term’s lot covers issues such as student speech, the interpretation of federal special education law, and school districts’ consideration of race in student assignments.
This week, on Jan. 10, the justices were scheduled to hear oral arguments in Zuni Public School District No. 89 v. Department of Education (Case No. 1508), which deals with how the federal impact-aid program is carried out in the states, and Washington v. Washington Education Association (No. 05-1657), on whether a teachers’ union must get permission from nonmembers to use their so-called agency fees for political causes.
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2007 edition of Education Week