Law & Courts

The U.S. Supreme Court and Schools in 2018-19

By Mark Walsh — July 16, 2019 2 min read
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In what was a relatively quiet term for education cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices declined to take up several high-profile K-12 cases, including the appeal of a high school football coach who was fired for praying on the field after games. (Four justices signaled that they were troubled by the coach’s dismissal but concerned about the procedural posture of the case.) The high court also threw out a lower-court ruling on gender-based pay discrimination in education, holding that the lower court was wrong to count the vote of a judge who had recently died. And the justices declined to take up an appeal from students who objected to a school district’s policy allowing transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity. The justices are letting those issues percolate in the lower courts. But they did decide several cases of interest in K-12 education:

Census Citizenship Question

Department of Commerce v. New York: The court ruled 5-4 to set aside the Trump administration’s plan to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 Census, holding that U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur L. Ross Jr. had pretextual reasons to add the question. Education groups were watching the case closely, arguing that the question would depress response rates, which could affect the allocation of billions of dollars in federal education aid to states and school districts. On July 2, the president announced that he was dropping his administration’s efforts to add the question to the census.

Age Discrimination

Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido: In a decision affecting the nation’s smallest school districts, the court ruled 8-0 that the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 applies to all political subdivisions, no matter how many employees they have. The decision rejected an argument that the act’s provision applying the law to private employers only when they have 20 or more workers should also be read to apply to public employers. The ruling means every school district is subject to the law, which prohibits discrimination against employees 40 or older in hiring and other employment decisions.

Religion in the Public Square

American Legion v. American Humanist Association: In a 7-2 decision, the justices upheld a 94-year-old cross memorializing a Maryland county’s World War I dead but stopped short of overruling the so-called Lemon test for evaluating government interaction with religion. The test from the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman has been relied on by lower courts in numerous cases involving religion in the public schools. But Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the Supreme Court itself has ignored or declined to apply the test in several K-12 cases, while Justice Elena Kagan said the test remains useful in evaluating the purposes and effects of government action on religion.

Federal Administrative Power

Kisor v. Wilkie: The court ruled 5-4 to retain a long-standing precedent that requires courts to defer to federal agencies’ reasonable interpretations of their own ambiguous regulations. The issue has arisen in education over such issues as transgender-student rights and racial disparities in student discipline. Some education groups had urged the court to overrule its 1997 decision in Auer v. Robbins, which they contend has allowed federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Education to exert administrative power through informal interpretations and guidance documents. The court’s opinion does place some limits on when courts must defer to agencies’ interpretations.

A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as The U.S. Supreme Court and Schools 2018-19

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