Law & Courts

The Supreme Court and Education: What Happened in the 2020-21 Term

By Mark Walsh — July 01, 2021 3 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court issued important decisions on student speech, college athletics, and other issues of interest to educators during the just-concluded 2020-21 term.

It was the first full term conducted remotely because of COVID-19 (after the last few months of the previous term had gone remote in 2020.) The term was also marked by the addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who joined the court in November 2020 after the death in September of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

During this term, the court notably declined to take up a case on transgender student rights, letting stand a lower court victory by transgender student Gavin Grimm over the right to use the school restroom of his choice. And it put off a decision on taking up a major case about affirmative action in higher education by asking President Joe Biden’s administration to weigh in on Harvard University’s consideration of race in undergraduate admissions.

Here are five education-related cases the court did decide on the merits:

Student speech

In Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., the court ruled 8-1 that a Pennsylvania school district violated the First Amendment when it punished a student for posting—while off-campus—a vulgar message on Snapchat expressing frustration about school and her cheerleading team. The majority said students have a right to self-expression and that schools are “nurseries of democracy” that play an important role in facilitating student speech. The school district and some education groups took comfort in the fact that the court said schools would sometimes have sufficient grounds to discipline off-campus speech, such as with severe bullying, threats aimed at teachers or students, and in virtual school.

Amateurism in college sports

In a case being watched in K-12 schools as well as in higher education, the court in National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston unanimously upheld a lower-court injunction that authorizes increased education-related compensation of student-athletes, such as for graduate school scholarships, paid post-eligibility internships, and study abroad. The court rejected a lighter form of antitrust scrutiny for the NCAA, and a concurrence suggested that other rules of the main college sports governing are subject to challenge under antitrust law. Some observers in K-12 decision worry about the effects of such changes on the recruitment of high school athletes and on youth sports.

Legal challenges to school policies

In a significant decision regarding litigation involving school and college policies, the justices ruled 8-1 in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski that a request for nominal damages of as little as $1 can keep a lawsuit challenging a government policy alive even when the agency drops the policy. The case before the court involved a challenge to a community college’s policy of limiting First Amendment activity to a small “free-speech zone.” The college dropped its policy under the challenge and sought to end the suit on that basis. But the Supreme Court revived the suit, holding that even a plea for $1 in nominal damages is enough to maintain a plaintiff’s legal standing.

Juvenile justice

In an important juvenile-justice decision, the court held 6-3 in Jones v. Mississippi that in cases involving defendants who committed murder when they were under 18, a court does not need to make a finding that the offender was “permanently incorrigible” before imposing a sentence of life without parole. The high court stressed that a judge or other sentencing authority must still take the youth of a juvenile offender into account in such cases, a process that often involves examining the offender’s childhood and school record.

Affordable Care Act

In California v. Texas, the court ruled 7-2 that a group of Republican-led states lacked legal standing to challenge the Affordable Care Act after Congress in 2017 eliminated the penalty for not complying with the law’s individual mandate to carry insurance. Both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association had joined a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the signature achievement of President Barack Obama’s administration. The brief emphasized the expanded number of children and young adults covered by health insurance because of provisions in the ACA.

Related Tags:


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
Meeting the Moment: Accelerating Equitable Recovery and Transformative Change
Educators are deciding how best to re-establish routines such as everyday attendance, rebuild the relationships for resilient school communities, and center teaching and learning to consciously prioritize protecting the health and overall well-being of students
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts 'I Just Want to Play.' Judge Halts W. Va. Law Barring Transgender Girls From Girls' Sports
Ruling for an 11-year-old transgender girl, the judge holds that the law likely violates the equal-protection clause and Title IX.
3 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+
Law & Courts Praying Coach v. District That Suspended Him: What's Next in Fight Over Religious Expression
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit declined to reconsider an earlier panel ruling that sided with the school district.
4 min read
Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, center in blue, kneels and prays after his team lost to Centralia in Bremerton, Wash., on Oct. 16, 2015. Kennedy, who was suspended for praying at midfield after games, has filed a discrimination complaint on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission according to The Liberty Institute, a Texas-based law firm representing the coach.
Joe Kennedy, center in blue, kneels and prays after a game in October 2015 when he was the assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash. In a long-running legal fight, Kennedy contends he has First Amendment free-speech and free-exercise-of-religion rights to express his Christian faith while on the job. The case is likely headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lindsey Wasso/The Seattle Times via AP
Law & Courts Appeals Court Again Backs Transgender Student, But on Narrower Grounds Amid Signs of Rift
A federal appeals panel removed a holding for student Drew Adams based on Title IX, perhaps to ward off a rehearing by the full court.
4 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+
Law & Courts Schools Will Get At Least $25 Million From Opioid Lawsuit
Lawyers are aiming to place significantly more money into the grant program as school districts' lawsuits against opioid companies continue.
3 min read
This June 17, 2019, photo shows 5-mg pills of Oxycodone.
This June 17, 2019, photo shows 5-mg pills of Oxycodone.
Keith Srakocic/AP