Education law is the body of state and federal law that covers teachers, schools, school districts, school boards, and the students they teach. Although the public school system is administered by the federal Department of Education, states are responsible for maintaining and operating public schools in compliance with state and federal laws. Education laws govern liability, curriculum standards, testing procedures, school finance, student financial aid, constitutional rights like school prayer and the bounds of student expression on school grounds, and school safety.
Issues that arise under education law include:
Title IX is a section of the United States Education Amendments of 1972 that is codified at 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681-1688. Title IX protects people from sex discrimination when they are engaged in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. Among the types of sex discrimination that Title IX expressly prohibits are sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and the failure to give equal opportunities in athletics. Federal funding is only available to a recipient that promises not to discriminate on the basis of sex.
Title IX is enforced through the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which has 12 offices across the country and a headquarters in Washington D.C. The OCR promulgates regulations to enforce Title IX. In addition to authorizing the OCR to investigate and try to negotiate remedies, or refer cases for administrative law proceedings to cut off federal funding or court proceedings pursued by the Department of Justice, Title IX also gives individuals a private right of action to bring a lawsuit for injunctive or monetary relief. The latter is only available for cases involving intentional sex discrimination.
Discrimination in Education
In addition to Title IX, many other federal laws prohibit education discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics, including race, age, and national origin. These laws include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Title VI prohibits educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. IDEA and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination in educational contexts. Title II provides comprehensive civil rights protection to qualified individuals who have disabilities, and it requires state and local governments to make reasonable modifications to any policies or practices that deny equal access to individuals with disabilities, except if a fundamental alteration to the program would result.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the primary law covering special education, which gives disabled children equal access to the education system. Disabilities under IDEA include mental retardation, autism, vision impairment, speech impairment, hearing impairment, emotional disturbance, traumatic brain injury, learning disabilities, and other impairments as defined by the law. IDEA allows students with specialized needs to have individualized education plans developed. Additionally, IDEA provides for an impartial administrative process for families of disabled students to resolve disputes with the school district.
There have been substantial legal changes to public education over the last several decades. Most education reform has been led by the states, and each state has different laws in this area, addressing issues such as charter schools or bullying. However, in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was enacted at the federal level to change the public school curriculum and improve teacher and school accountability for students’ school performance.
Under the NCLB, schools with high-performing students were rewarded, while schools with students who failed to meet the NCLB’s testing standards were restructured. Parents with children in low-performing schools are allowed to send their children to better-performing schools in other districts. As of 2011, states have been allowed to obtain a waiver of the NCLB in exchange for agreeing to implement other serious educational reforms regarding their academic standards, assessments, and accountability systems.