High Court To Hear Major School Cases

The upcoming session of the U.S. Supreme Court will involve several important issues, including the relationship between church and state, the rights of students against unreasonable searches, and the rights of teachers facing dismissal. One of the cases the Court will consider is Wallace v. Jaffree and Smith v. Jaffree, which will address the constitutionality of laws allowing "moments of silence" in public schools. These cases involve an Alabama law that permits teachers to announce a one-minute period of silence for meditation or voluntary prayer, with no other activities allowed during that time. Similar laws have been enacted in twenty-three other states.

In a controversial ruling in January 1983, U.S. District Judge W. Brevard Hand upheld the Alabama law, stating that the Court made an error when it declared organized school prayer unconstitutional twenty-two years ago. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit later overturned Judge Hand’s ruling. The Reagan Administration filed a brief with the Court on July 10, arguing in favor of moment-of-silence laws. They claimed that these laws do not violate the establishment of religion but rather provide an opportunity for both religious and nonreligious introspection in an environment where many people desire it. The Administration contends that these laws promote toleration and pluralism, rather than coercion or indoctrination.

Another case the Court will decide involves a program in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where public-school teachers teach remedial and community education classes in private schools. The program is funded by the state and the school district. The program, known as the "shared-time" program, is challenged by a group of Michigan taxpayers who argue that it violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion. Two lower federal courts have ruled in favor of the taxpayers.

The Reagan Administration has also requested that the Court review a lawsuit related to private-school participation in New York City’s federally financed Chapter 1 program for disadvantaged students. In Secretary of Education v. Felton, a federal appeals court held that the New York program, which involves public-school teachers instructing private-school students in classrooms free of religious materials, violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause. The Administration argues that reviewing this case alongside the Grand Rapids case will allow the Court to thoroughly consider the important issues regarding federal and state efforts to improve education for all American children.

Lastly, the Court will hear arguments in New Jersey v. T.L.O., a case concerning the rights of students against unreasonable searches.

Lawyers’ Fees

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of Webb v. County Board of Education of Dyer County, Tenn. (No. 83-1360) on October 29. The case will determine whether attorneys can receive fees for work done in state administrative proceedings that are optional.

The case arose from the dismissal of a tenured elementary school teacher in 1974. The teacher was accused of "unprofessional conduct and insubordination." After four years of state administrative hearings, the teacher filed a race-bias claim in federal court under Sections 1981 through 1986 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Although the dispute was settled out of court in favor of the teacher, the federal district and appeals courts ruled that the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Act of 1976 did not require the school board to pay the teacher’s legal fees. This decision was based on the argument that the teacher was not obligated to exhaust state administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit in federal court.

Hearings Before Termination

In two other employment-related cases, the Supreme Court will decide whether school employees are entitled to hearings before being terminated, even if they have the option to appeal their dismissals after losing their jobs. The cases, Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill (No. 83-1362), and Parma Board of Education v. Donnelly (No. 83-1363), involve the firing of a security guard for providing false information on an employment application and the dismissal of a school bus driver for failing an eye examination. While administrative hearing officers and federal district courts upheld the dismissals, a federal appeals court overturned these rulings, arguing that the employees should have been allowed to challenge their dismissals before they took effect, thereby claiming a violation of due process.

Other Cases

The Supreme Court has also agreed to hear arguments in the following cases:

1. Wayte v. U.S. (No. 83-1292): On November 6, the Court will hear a lawsuit involving the indictment of a former Yale University student who refused to register for the draft. The student’s lawyers successfully argued before a federal district judge that he was the victim of "selective prosecution," but this decision was overturned by a federal appeals court.

2. Springfield Township School District v. Knoll (No. 82-1889): The Court will rule on whether a state’s six-month statute of limitations, which would normally prevent a teacher from filing a sex-discrimination lawsuit against a school board, should be disregarded due to its inconsistency with federal civil-rights laws. The lawsuit was filed under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871.

3. Anderson v. City of Bessemer (No. 83-1623): In another case involving sex discrimination in employment, the Court will decide if a federal appeals court overstepped its authority when it overturned a district court’s ruling. The district court had found that a former elementary school teacher was denied the position of city recreation director due to her gender. The appeals court argued that evidence of a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was refuted by testimony from male personnel officials claiming that their wives also held jobs.

4. Lawrence County v. Lead-Deadwood School District No. 40-1 (No. 83-240): The case, which will be argued on October 30, addresses whether a South Dakota funding law violates the supremacy clause of the Sixth Amendment. This is because the law conflicts with a federal law that provides payments to local governments in lieu of taxes on federal lands. Lead-Deadwood school officials filed a lawsuit in state court against the county in 1982 to compel the distribution of funds received under the federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes Act of 1976 to local schools. The county officials countersued, arguing that the 1976 federal law allows the funds to be used for any purpose. They claim that under the supremacy clause, federal laws take precedence over state laws in cases of conflict. A state trial court ruled in favor of the school officials, but the South Dakota Supreme Court reversed the decision.

Petition for Review

Is it a violation of the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963 for an Illinois school board to pay female high-school coaches who train female athletes significantly less than their male counterparts who train male athletes, even though both groups of coaches have similar responsibilities? The case being discussed is Erickson v. Board of Education, Proviso Township High School District No. 209 (No. 83-1853).

Did a nontenured kindergarten teacher’s rights to freedom of speech under the First Amendment get violated when she was terminated, supposedly for expressing her grievances against her supervisors during a school board meeting that was open to the public? The matter at hand is addressed in Renfore v. Kirkpatrick (No. 83-1854).

Does an Oklahoma law that allows school districts to dismiss teachers who advocate homosexuality or openly engage in homosexual behavior infringe upon the free-speech rights of teachers? The case in question is Board of Education of the City of Oklahoma City v. National Gay Task Force (No. 83-2030).


  • isabelbyrne

    Isabel Byrne is a 32-year-old blogger and student who resides in the United States. Byrne is an advocate for education and has written extensively on the topic of education reform. Byrne is also a proponent of the use of technology in the classroom and has spoken at numerous conferences on the topic.