Education Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Process of being trained by formal instruction and directed practice. Responsibility of the state, rather than the federal government, according to the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Educational cases involve two major concepts: parens patriae and in loco parentis. The first of these, parens patriae, maintains that the state, as a parent to all persons within its boundaries, has the inherent authority to provide for the individual and general welfare of its citizens. Through the exercise of its police power, the state legislature can establish laws and regulations for the common good, including mandatory school attendance. The state also has the power to care for those who are legally incompetent to act on their own behalf, including minor children. Because the state’s interest may conflict with parental interest, this scheme often is the subject of litigation surrounding compulsory education and curriculum. The second concept is that the school board and educational authorities have the power to act in the parents’ stead, in loco parentis, with the caveat that the state’s action must be supported by a rational or compelling state interest before a child’s or a parents’ rights can be infringed on or restricted.Family and childrenTenth AmendmentTenth Amendment

In Pierce v. Society of Sisters[case]Pierce v. Society of Sisters[Pierce v. Society of Sisters] (1925), the Supreme Court ruled that although the state has fairly extensive authority to protect children from parental abuse, it has only limited authority to interfere with parents’ control of their children’s education. However, in Prince v. Massachusetts[case]Prince v. Massachusetts[Prince v. Massachusetts] (1944), the Court stated that the family is not beyond regulation in the public interest and that the state as parens patriae may restrict the parents’ control by requiring school attendance or regulating or prohibiting child labor. In Wisconsin v. Yoder[case]Wisconsin v. Yoder[Wisconsin v. Yoder](1972), the Court said that the power of the parent may be subject to limitation if it appears that parental decisions will jeopardize the health or safety of the child or have the potential to create significant social burdens. A common link in these cases is a judicial concern for the child, with the parental interest and the state interest secondary.

Challenges to compulsory attendance laws often deal with the question of whether parental judgment should prevail over that of the state. Parens patriae also extends to compulsory medical care over the objection of parents. This does not mean, however, that parental authority is restricted in all cases; at times it is strengthened. In Yoder, the Court held that a state cannot compel Amish children to attend public high school, balancing the state’s power to impose reasonable regulations against the fundamental rights and interests of individuals whose beliefs constitute their philosophical ideology. Moreover, where parents show that enforcement of compulsory education will endanger their religious beliefs, the state’s parens patriae power must yield to the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Religion and Public Schools

The First Amendment freedom of religion is found in two clauses: the establishmentReligion, establishment of clause and the free exerciseReligion, freedom of clause. In 1791 Thomas JeffersonJefferson, Thomas declared that there should be a “wall of separation,” high and impenetrable, between church and state. The essential meaning of this phrase is that the education provided in public schools must be secular and without religious content or intent. An important element of the secular state contained in Jefferson’s words was a system of public education that could convey all necessary temporal knowledge but not impede religious freedom. The power of the state could not be used to inculcate religious beliefs, nor could the authority of the state to tax be used to assist religious training.

In Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education[case]Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education[Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education] (1948), the Court held that the practice called “released time”Released time violated the separation of church and state. Under this practice, schools set aside a period in which religious instruction was conducted in regular classrooms. Students not participating were required to go to other rooms where they received secular instruction. The practice was upheld, however, in Zorach v. Clauson[case]Zorach v. Clauson[Zorach v. Clauson] (1952), when the religious training was held off school premises. In Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township[case]Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township[Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township] (1947), the Court held that the establishment clause does not prohibit spending tax funds to pay bus fare for parochial school students, and in Board of Education v. Allen[case]Board of Education v. Allen[Board of Education v. Allen] (1968), it held that the loan of textbooks to parochial school students did not violate the establishment clause.

The line between state neutrality to and support of religion is not easily drawn. In its analysis, the Court examines the purpose and primary effect of the legislation if it is designed to advance or inhibit religion, then it exceeds the scope of the legislative power. In Lemon v. Kurtzman[case]Lemon v. Kurtzman[Lemon v. Kurtzman] (1971), the Court clarified the criteria to be applied. The legislation must have a secular purpose and a primary secular effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion. In addition, the statute must not foster “excessive government entanglements” with religion.

In Engel v. Vitale[case]Engel v. Vitale[Engel v. Vitale] (1962), the Court disallowed a nondenominational prayer recited daily in New York classrooms because the purpose of the recitation appeared to constitute government-sanctioned official prayers.School prayer Similarly, a daily reading of ten verses of the Bible and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer without comment were also held unconstitutional in Abington School District v. Schempp[case]Abington School District v. Schempp[Abington School District v. Schempp] (1963) and Murray v. Curlett[case]Murray v. Curlett[Murray v. Curlett] (1963) respectively. A nonsectarian prayer at a high school graduation was also held unconstitutional in Lee v. Weisman[case]Lee v. Weisman[Lee v. Weisman] (1992) because the Court believed that it exerted subtle coercive pressures where students had no other reasonable alternative.

In Epperson v. Arkansas[case]Epperson v. Arkansas[Epperson v. Arkansas] (1968), the Court declared unconstitutional a statute that prohibited teaching from a book containing a chapter on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution because it conflicted with the religious interpretation of the Book of Genesis. The Court also found, in Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet[case]Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet[Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet] (1994) that a statute creating a special school district as a religious enclave also violated the establishment clause because it destroyed impartiality or neutrality toward religion. A noticeable shift in policy was apparent in Agostini v. Felton[case]Agostini v. Felton[Agostini v. Felton] (1997), in which the Court admitted that some interaction between church and state is inevitable and tolerable as long as the entanglement is not “excessive.” It did not, however, define the parameters of that standard.

Several cases involving the free exercise clause centered on mandatory participation in flag salute ceremonies. In Minersville School District v. Gobitis[case]Minersville School District v. Gobitis[Minersville School District v. Gobitis] (1940), the Court upheld such a statute in the name of discipline, cohesion, and unity, largely because the outbreak of World War II in Europe had produced a high level of nationalism in the United States. In contrast, only three years later, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette[case]West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette[West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette] (1943), the Court ruled that the state had no power to require such a ritual. Remaining passive created no danger and did not interfere with the rights of others to participate. Moreover, compelling the ritual, according to the Court, violated First Amendment freedoms. In Wisconsin v. Yoder[case]Wisconsin v. Yoder[Wisconsin v. Yoder], the Court held that a state statute compelling school attendance to age sixteen unduly burdened the free exercise of religion of the Amish people and was unconstitutional.

Race and Education

The most notable civil rights case was Brown v. Board of Education[case]Brown v. Board of Education[Brown v. Board of Education] (1954), in which the Court mandated school desegregation on equal protection grounds. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court had upheld segregation, stating that separate but equal public facilities did not violate anyone’s rights. In Brown, however, the Court ruled that separate facilities deprive individuals of equal protection of the laws and generate feelings of inferiority, producing an overall detrimental effect. Ruling that separate facilities are inherently unequal, the Court ordered the integration of all schools, creating a unitary school system. Desegregation was to proceed “with all deliberate speed.”

Throughout the 1960’s, however, states struggled with implementing integration. The Court examined both de jure and de facto segregation. De jure (by law) segregation is mandated by law or by the deliberate act of school officials and was more typically found in the South. De facto segregation results from residential housing patterns and was more typically found in the North. The Court’s ruling in Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1[case]Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1[Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1] (1973) was regarded as a signal indicating its approval of districtwide desegregation in northern school districts. In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education[case]Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education[Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education] (1971) the Court also ruled that busing to overcome racial segregation is a judicially acceptable remedy for de facto segregation.

Rights of Teachers and Students

In the 1940’s and 1950’s loyalty oaths for educational personnel were not unusual, although their provisions differed widely. The Court has upheld loyalty oaths provided that they are not so vague that their meaning is uncertain and oath takers could be accused of perjury if they did not understand their implications. Public secondary schoolteachers do not have unlimited liberty or authority to determine course structure or content. In order to plead denial of academic freedomAcademic freedom, teachers must first buttress their cases with some substantive claim under the First Amendment or a similar provision. In general, the courts have developed a flexible rule that balances the public’s interests against the private interests of the employee. Due to their sensitive position in the classroom, however, teachers must be held accountable for certain activities, and their rights are not absolute and can be overcome if the public necessity is great enough.

The case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District[case]Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District[Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District] (1969) established some guidelines by which to reconcile the constitutional rights of’ students and the power of school officials. The case involved three students who wore black arm bands to school in silent protest against the government’s Vietnam War policy in violation of the school’s prohibition against the wearing of arm bands. When the students were asked to remove the arm bands, they refused and were suspended. The Court observed that the wearing of arm bands was “pure speech” totally divorced from actual or potentially disruptive conduct. Desire to avoid discomfort or unpleasantness accompanying an unpopular viewpoint is not sufficient reason for prohibiting expression of opinion. The Court held, however, that schools may regulate the content of school-sponsored newspapers when the speech is part of the curriculum in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier[case]Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier[Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier] (1988) or when the speech is lewd, indecent, or offensive to both students and teachers in Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser[case]Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser[Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser] (1986).

In Davis v. Monroe County[case]Davis v. Monroe County[Davis v. Monroe County] (1999), the Court held that schools found to be “deliberately indifferent” to a student’s claims of sexual harassment can be liable for monetary damages in cases in which the behavior is so severe, pervasive, and offensive that it denies its victims equal access to education.

Further Reading
  • Although it is a textbook and contains case excerpts, American Public School Law by Kern Alexander and M. David Alexander (4th ed., Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1998) contains excellent explanatory material and is a rich resource for further research. E. Edmund Reutter, Jr.’s The Supreme Court’s Impact on Public Education (Bloomington, Ind.: Phi Delta Kappa and National Organization on Legal Problems of Education, 1982) contains an analysis and summary of Court opinions, explaining judgments directly affecting education and the Court’s policies and procedures. A Digest of Supreme Court Decisions Affecting Education (3d ed., Bloomington, Ind.: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1995), compiled by Perry A. Zirkel, Sharon Nalbone Richardson, and Steven S. Goldberg, presents numerous cases in simple summary fashion without comment. Evelyn B. Kelly’s Legal Basics: A Handbook for Educators (Bloomington, Ind.: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1998) contains basic explanations of everyday matters likely to be encountered by educators. Teachers and the Law (5th ed., New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999) by Louis Fischer, David Schimmel, and Cynthia Kelly provides information about teachers’ legal rights and responsibilities. Written in question-and-answer format with case references, Robert J. Shoop and Dennis R. Dunklee’s School Law for the Principal: A Handbook for Practitioners (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1992) is another practical source of information containing hypothetical situations and suggested answers.


Equal protection clause

Lemon v. Kurtzman

Pierce v. Society of Sisters

Police powers

Religion, establishment of

Religion, freedom of

School integration and busing

School prayer

Speech and press, freedom of

Tenth Amendment

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette

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