School Choice & Charters

K-12 and the U.S. Supreme Court: Highlights of the 2016-17 Term

By Mark Walsh — June 30, 2017 4 min read
The U.S. Supreme Court convenes for the last day of opinions on June 26.

The U.S. Supreme Court had one of its most significant terms for K-12 education in several years, even after it decided to remand to a lower court a case it had decided to hear about transgender rights in education, Gloucester County School District v. G.G.

Here are the cases with implications for education that the court did decide:

Special Education

Ehlena Fry, second from right, sits with her parents and brother in the U.S. Supreme Court as the court hears arguments in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools.

In a landmark decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the court unanimously expanded the scope of students’ rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The case focused on the definition of just how much—or how little—schools must do in setting up an education program for a student with a disability. The high court rejected a standard adopted by a federal appeals court that schools need only provide a “merely more than de minimus” education program. Instead, the IDEA requires an educational program “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” For a child in special education in a regular classroom, an individualized education program, or IEP, should be reasonably calculated “to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade,” the court said.

In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools—a case that involved a child’s use of a service dog at school—the court held that a student or family suing a school district over a disability-related issue doesn’t always have to exhaust all the procedures under the IDEA before going to court. Instead, it can go ahead when the lawsuit centers on a violation of another federal disabilities law, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, rather than on the special education law’s core guarantee of a “free, appropriate public education.”

Religion and Public Education

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. delivers the majority opinion in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. v. Comer.

In a case closely watched by school choice advocates on both sides, the court ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. v. Comer that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution’s free exercise of religion clause when it denied a church a grant to use shredded scrap-tire material to improve its preschool playground. The case was always about much more than recycled tires and church playgrounds, as religious school vouchers advocates hoped the court might use it to cast aside state constitutional provisions limiting aid to religion. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote a much more narrow opinion, though a footnote aimed at limiting the decision to “express discrimination based on religious identity” and not “religious uses of funding” did not attract a majority of votes. For that and other reasons, voucher proponents were heartened by the decision.

Free Speech

Robert C. Montgomery, the senior deputy attorney general for the state of North Carolina, presents the state’s case in Packingham v. North Carolina.

In Packingham v. North Carolina, the court held that social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn deserve First Amendment protection and that a North Carolina statute that barred people on the state’s sex offender registry from accessing most commercial social networking sites ran afoul of the free-speech clause.

In Matal v. Tam, the justices reiterated that even speech that is offensive or disparaging to certain individuals and groups is protected by the First Amendment. The case stemmed from an Asian-American dance-rock band’s unsuccessful efforts to trademark its name—The Slants—which the band intends as a way to reclaim an ethnic slur. The court held that a provision of the Lanham Act of 1947 that bars disparagement of persons was inconsistent with the free-speech clause.

Private Schools

Lisa S. Blatt argues before the court on behalf of religious hospitals in Advocate Health Care v. Stapleton.

In Advocate Health Care v. Stapleton, the court ruled 8-0 that a retirement plan maintained by a “principal-purpose organization” such as a religious hospital or school qualifies as a “church plan” under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, regardless of who established it. The decision eased fears of schools and other church entities because it rejected an interpretation of ERISA that some federal appeals courts had adopted that would have required such entities to comply with all of the retirement statute’s recordkeeping and procedural requirements.

Copyright

Attorney John J. Bursch argues the case for cheerleader uniform provider Star Athletica in Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands.

In a case with implications for the costs of cheerleader uniforms as well as for copyright in education more generally, the justices ruled 6-2 in Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands that the leading provider of cheerleader uniforms could copyright some uniform designs to stave off competitors. One of those competitors had challenged the copyrights, saying the market leader’s practices drove up the prices of uniforms for schools and families. And the American Library Association had filed a brief arguing that more-expansive copyright protection would be more difficult and expensive for schools.

Presidential Appointments

Attorney Shay Dvoretzky, representing SW General Inc., is questioned by Justice Stephen G. Breyer during his presentation before the court in National Labor Relations Board v. SW General Inc..

In National Labor Relations Board v. SW General Inc., the justices ruled that the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 bars a person who has been nominated to fill a vacant position requiring a presidential appointment and Senate confirmation from performing the duties of that office in an acting capacity. Republican and Democratic presidential administrations had been skirting the law over the past 20 years, and the court’s decision put a crimp in President Donald Trump’s personnel activities.

A version of this article appeared in the July 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as K-12 and the U.S. Supreme Court: 2016-17 Term

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