Autumn has arrived, the school year is underway, and those personally involved in elementary and secondary education are preparing for parent-teacher conferences and beginning to mark report cards. Awareness of federal and state education laws and local policies can help parents and other concerned parties advocate for educational excellence for all children.
Education is of national importance, but the U.S. Constitution is silent on educational matters, and the Supreme Court has determined that education is not a guaranteed right. The federal constitution simply requires that if the government provides educational services, it does so within generally applicable constitutional parameters, such as the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses and the First Amendment. Despite the lack of an explicit constitutional mandate to educate our nation’s youth, the federal government enforces civil rights laws and provides funding to states and local school districts that participate in federal programs.
Federal education laws
Federal education laws influence but do not mandate educational policy. In fact, Congress recently forbade federal endorsement of specific curriculum standards. Congress’s primary foray into our children’s education is through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, known as ESEA. The ESEA was amended in 2002 by the No Child Left Behind Act and in 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA. Title I provides funding to state and local educational agencies to improve opportunities for children in economically disadvantaged communities. Title I money benefits children enrolled in private as well as public schools. ESSA requires states that receive federal education funding to teach and assess student progress in English, mathematics and science literacy.
Other federal laws (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (Amendments Act of 2008) prohibit discrimination based on “handicap,” also referred to as “disability” or “impairment.” The terminology has changed over time, but the basic requirement of a “free appropriate public education” remains the same.
Despite the alphabet soup of acronyms used to describe educational programs and the bureaucratic red tape involved in obtaining benefits, learning is a singular experience and small improvements can have profound impacts.
These civil rights laws prevent the unnecessary segregation of students. Section 504 protects any child “who: (i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, (ii) has a record of such an impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment.” Children who fit this definition must be given an opportunity to learn in a general education environment when possible. Accommodations required under Section 504 may include the installation of ramps to make buildings accessible, the provision of audio books and readers for vision-impaired students, extra time for tests and assignments, speech therapy, and the assignment of aides to assist with medical needs.
A student must be evaluated before a Section 504 accommodation is provided. Evaluations may be initiated by the school, which must give prior notice to the parents, or by the parents, who may request a free evaluation. Parents who disagree with the initial evaluation and proposed “504 Plan” to provide accommodations must be provided with an impartial hearing at which they may be represented by an attorney. The decision of the impartial hearing officer may then be appealed to a higher official. Parents have a right to sue on behalf of their child if they think the final administrative decision will not give their child an appropriate education.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, provides funding to states and districts that comply with federal special education requirements, although Congress currently provides less than 15 percent of special education costs. IDEA requires additional services for children whose education is “adversely affected” by one or more of 13 specified disabilities. IDEA resources are available to children from birth through 21 and states must endeavor to identify (“child find”) and serve all who are eligible. These services may be provided in general or specialized public school classes or at private schools when a public school cannot provide appropriate services. In certain circumstances, IDEA funds may be used to help parentally placed private school students.
Evaluations for IDEA services are more detailed than those required for Section 504 accommodations. Once the evaluation is complete, parents are invited to attend an individualized education program eligibility meeting. If a student is deemed eligible for services, the I.E.P. team will create an I.E.P. that specifies the student’s present level of performance (PLOP), performance goals, services that will be provided to help the student meet those goals, and an assessment standard for determining progress toward goals. Mediation services and due process hearings are available to resolve disagreements regarding the content of the I.E.P. Parents who still are dissatisfied with the services offered (and have the wherewithal) may challenge the validity of the I.E.P. in federal or state court.
I.E.P.s must be updated annually and demonstrate student progress. In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017), the Supreme Court determined that “a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.” The court went on, however, to reject an “equal” education standard. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the unanimous court, stated, “The adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created.”
State education laws
Every state constitution provides for some form of public education, and state laws set compulsory age requirements and curricular and educational standards for public and private schools. All states teach mathematics and English language arts (E.L.A.), which include speaking, listening, reading and writing, and literacy in science and the social sciences (history and civics), but the content of the instruction varies greatly.
The Common Core Initiative began as an effort by states to create grade-specific proficiency standards to “ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life.” The Common Core covers kindergarten through high school and establishes standards in E.L.A. and mathematics. Common Core requirements vary depending on the subject. Common Core E.L.A. materials provide illustrative samples of texts demonstrating appropriate “complexity, quality, and range” and set grade-level parameters of satisfactory understanding and analysis. Grade 4 students, for example, should learn to “[e]xplain major differences between poems, drama, and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) and drama (e.g., casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text.”
The science literacy standards do not recommend instruction in specific courses, such as biology or chemistry; instead they propose levels of understanding relevant to all sciences. Thus, high school graduates should be able to “[e]valuate the hypotheses, data, analysis, and conclusions in a science or technical text, verifying the data when possible and corroborating or challenging conclusions with other sources of information.”
Forty-one states have adopted the Common Core standards and use them as the basis for state-mandated curricula that include other subjects, such as physical education, fine arts and world languages. Educational requirements for your state can be found on the education page of your state’s website. The Education Commission of the States provides state comparison charts on a variety of related topics; the Nation’s Report Card compiles assessment data, and the National Center for Education Statistics has a searchable database that provides basic information on public and private schools.
State laws govern school curriculum, but most educational decisions, including the selection of classroom materials and teaching methods, are delegated to local school boards, principals and teachers. This makes education one of our government’s most accessible endeavors.
Despite the alphabet soup of acronyms used to describe educational programs and the bureaucratic red tape involved in obtaining benefits, learning is a singular experience and small improvements can have profound impacts. Educating a nation is a daunting task, but each of us can find ways to support the children in our communities by voting in school board elections, donating school supplies, attending school events or even volunteering in a classroom.
Education is important not just to children, parents and educators, but to everyone concerned with the future of our democracy. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free,...it expects what never was & never will be.”