Parents Sue For Better Schools
Investor's Business Daily
September 17, 1999
Parents Sue For Better Schools
Courts Become Last Resort For The Desperate
by Anna Bray Duff
That was the theme of Thursday's National Issue. But there's another side to the story: Lawsuits are often the only way parents can prod a slow-moving school bureaucracy to action.
In some cases, it's simply parents trying to get a one-size-fits-all school system to respond to the very real needs of their child. In others, it's poor parents frustrated with poor learning resources. Yet others involve parents who feel shut out of the classroom.
When parents have to pay to support public schools -- and they can't choose which public school their child attends -- ''What recourse do they have?'' asks Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform.
Parents do have choices if they want to change the way schools work. They can fight to change their elected school board through the ballot box. They can move or find a private school. Or they can sue.
Courts today give parents more grounds than ever on which to sue. Just this year, the Supreme Court created a new right for parents to sue schools for student-on-student sexual harassment.
Another reason why parents are likely to sue: "There's a heightened awareness on the part of parents that they have rights," said Tom Stack, an attorney for the Texas Justice Foundation in San Antonio.
Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, finds parents are more and more averse to accepting school decisions -- on discipline, curriculum or even grades. That makes them more likely to sue.
"Schools are swinging in the direction of adopting more and more rules and regulations"
The following three cases illustrate the growing willingness on the part of parents and their children to challenge decisions made by schools.
Math curriculumParents in Plano, Texas, are fighting a district decision to use new math textbooks in all of its middle schools -- with a lawsuit.
The parents didn't like the ''Connected Math'' textbook, which they say relies too heavily on discovery learning -- the idea that students need to discover math principles for themselves rather than learning them from the teacher.
One of the plaintiffs says her son had so much trouble learning math that way that she ended up teaching him at home.
So the parents filed a series of complaints -- and a petition with 500 signatures -- to the school board and the Texas Education Agency. They wanted the district to offer a math class taught in a more traditional way. When school started this fall, the district didn't offer the class.
The parents argue that the district violated their right to free speech by keeping them from passing out fliers at a public meeting. And they say the district is breaking a state law that requires districts to offer an alternative program if enough parents want it.
For its part, the district argues the parents didn't follow the proper procedure in getting their fliers OK'd. And it argues that it doesn't have to provide a choice because it's the same subject, just taught differently.
Details aside, the question remains: How much say should parents have in what goes on in the classroom?
Throughout the country, parents who push for a back-to-basics education find they often run up against a hostile education establishment, Stack says.
"There's an idea that they're the professionals and they know what they're doing," Stack said.
"Districts give lip service to parental involvement, but they only want it if parents support everything the school does. Where the rubber meets the road in the classroom, parents who object to what's going on are seen as troublemakers who have overstepped their bounds."
In part, educators agree: They don't want parents telling them how to teach.
Marilyn Brooks, associate superintendent for the Plano school district, recently told a school board meeting: "We do involve parents -- not to tell professional educators what or how to teach -- but to become partners with us as we all work to improve our children's education."
The NSBA's Bryant also thinks it's wrong for parents to have say over specific curriculum decisions, although she notes that most districts (including Plano) include parents on committees that set guidelines for what to teach.
"You want to involve parents and the community in the development of goals for the district, but to the extent that parents are involved in curriculum selection borders on micromanagement," Bryant said. "School boards are getting much better at the school-parent connection, and if we do that, parents may not be as anxious to control the curriculum."
Advanced placement classesIn Inglewood, Calif., four students are suing the state and the school district on the grounds that its high-school course offerings aren't tough enough.
The high school offers only three Advanced Placement classes -- college-level courses that carry college credit and are often an unspoken requirement for admission to prestigious colleges, such as the University of California.
None of those courses is in math or science. By comparison, students at Beverly Hills High School can pick from 14 AP classes in all subjects. The students argue their schools' meager AP offerings violate their state constitutional right to a free and equal education -- especially in the wake of Proposition 209, a state law barring affirmative action at state entities.
"This is a state that came out of the Prop. 209 election under the banner of equal educational opportunity," said Mark Rosenbaum, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who is representing the students. ''That has to start with giving kids who are willing to take challenging academic courses that opportunity.''
Without the threat of a lawsuit, he argues, the state would be able to continue to ignore the needs of poor students.
For its part, the district said it hadn't offered more such courses for lack of funds and qualified teachers. It's still unclear if the state will fight the lawsuit or settle it by offering more AP classes.
Special education placementAngela Malensky is suing the Fort Zumwalt, Mo., school district because it won't offer her autistic son a program she believes offers the best chance for him to learn to speak and function more normally.
Lawsuits over special-ed placements may be the most common way in which parents challenge school districts' decisions. Federal rules say that a decision on how to educate a child with special needs must be made by a group made up of district experts, parents and school officials. Typically, disagreements arise when parents want their child in an expensive private program.
The program Malensky wants is one of the expensive ones, although the district denies cost had anything to do with its decision. Called Applied Behavioral Analysis, it trains kids to talk and do basic tasks through repetition and rewards for getting it right. Because it's a one-on-one program, it costs $30,000 a year for one child.
The parents in this case have been paying for the program themselves and say it has led to marked improvement in their son's abilities. But they're running out of money, and want the district to pick up the tab.
A district official told the St. Charles County Post that the district had "philosophical differences" with the ABA program. The district thought it unproven and too prescriptive.
There are few easy answers to these questions, although the Center for Education Reform's Allen suggests greater school choice would help all parents facing such dilemmas.
Adds Rosenbaum of the ACLU, which does not support school choice: "Nobody can look at the state of the public school system today and say that voters are demanding candidates who will bring about the most rapid changes to improve schools. It's only through a lawsuit that schools will have to do something."