10 Important Court Cases That Forever Changed Education

The history of the United States has time and again proven that its people and its laws are living, changing things. There’s no clearer example of this than the history of education law in the country, as major court cases over the years helped usher in new eras of integration, religious freedom, and more. The cases listed below were landmarks for the way they handled contentious issues and led the U.S. down new paths. Without the decisions included here, it would be impossible for many people to get any kind of education, let alone an online college degree. These are the court cases that changed the face of education in the United States forever.

  1. West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette: This 1943 Supreme Court decision dealt with the Pledge of Allegiance and the use of the American flag in schools. Specifically, the West Virginia legislature had required that schools would not only teach U.S. history but that teachers and students would be required to recite the Pledge and salute the flag, and that failure to do so would be classified as "insubordination" to be "dealt with accordingly." Groups including the PTA and the Boy Scouts protested, but it was a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses who objected to what they viewed as worship of a "graven image" over their belief in God. The Court ruled 6-3 that forcing children to salute the flag was unconstitutional. The victory was a major one for proponents of First Amendment rights, as well as for those whose religious beliefs were challenged by such acts.
  2. Everson v. Board of Education: The landmark Everson case is remembered for expanding the protections of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause to the states instead of keeping it at the federal level. Before this 1947 decision, some states granted special legislative rights to certain religions, despite the prohibition in the First Amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." A New Jersey man initially brought suit over the fact that taxpayers there were being reimbursed for the cost of children taking public transportation to schools both public and private. His argument, which the Supreme Court agreed with when the case made its way to them, was that such a program is a blurring of the line meant to separate church and state. The decision would help pave the way for a necessary separation of the two institutions in the educational realm for years to come.
  3. Brown v. Board of Education: One of the most important and well known Supreme Court decisions of all time, this 1954 ruling overturned 1896′s Plessy v. Ferguson, which had held that segregated schools were legal as long as equal facilities were maintained for white and black students. The 9-0 decision of Brown uncovered the lie of that by stating that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." This ruling put an end to the legality of institutionalized segregation in American schools and helped clear the path for the coming civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. The plaintiffs of Topeka, Kansas, had their case argued before the Court by NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, who would join the Supreme Court in 1967.
  4. Engel v. Vitale: Another important decision in terms of religious freedom, Engel v. Vitale was a 1962 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that it’s unconstitutional for schools to compose official prayers and make students recite them. Families of students at a New York school united to legally protest the fact their children were required to recite a prayer that the school had written for its students. They argued that such a practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and the Court backed them up. The school tried to claim that the prayer’s wording was vague enough not to endorse any specific religion, but the Court said that the prayer’s petition to "Almighty God" was enough to serve as promotion for a family of faiths, thus making the whole affair unconstitutional. The case helped to define and strengthen the divide between churches and schools.
  5. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District: This 1969 case would influence many others (some on this list), and courts still refer to "the Tinker test" when determining the rights of students on school campuses. The case came about when three students — two in high school, one in junior high — wore black armbands to school in December 1965 to protest the Vietnam War. The school forbade the wearing of the armbands, a ruling that stood until the case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. In a 7-2 ruling, the Court said that students and teachers don’t forfeit their constitutional protections "at the schoolhouse gate," and that the school could only justify censoring students’ speech for a legitimate reason, not merely to avoid a potentially awkward reminder of Vietnam. Later rulings would qualify and limit Tinker, but the case was a crucial victory for students’ right to speech and expression.
  6. Goss v. Lopez: This 1975 decision bolstered students’ rights in the face of disciplinary action. Dwight Lopez and eight other students were suspended from Ohio’s Marion-Franklin High School for destruction of property. However, their suspension came without a hearing or parental notification, and the swiftness and execution of that punishment was deemed by the Supreme Court (ruling 5-4) to be a violation of students’ rights to due process of the 14th Amendment. The ruling didn’t do anything to condone Lopez’s actions, but it was important in determining that students are deserving of certain procedural rights when they’re involved in disciplinary actions.
  7. New Jersey v. T. L. O.: Students’ right to privacy was sharply defined in this 1985 ruling. Two high school students were caught smoking in the bathroom of Piscataway Township High School in 1980. (Amazingly, smoking was allowed on campus, but only in certain areas.) One of the students had her purse searched, which revealed rolling papers and what appeared to be evidence that she smoked and sold pot regularly. She fought the search and seizure, claiming it violated her Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. However, the Court ruled 6-3 that the search had been reasonable: She had been caught smoking cigarettes but denied doing so, which led to a reasonable search of her purse for the cigarettes, and that search in turn yielded discovery of drug paraphernalia in "plain view." The ruling changed education by making it easier to understand what constitutes a reasonable attempt on the part of school officials to provide a safe environment, something that’s always on the table when it comes to schools.
  8. Bethel School District v. Fraser: This 1986 ruling was one of those that refined the Tinker test. A student named Matthew Fraser gave a speech on behalf of another student running for school office that was packed with sexual innuendo, and as a result, Fraser was suspended. He sued that the suspension violated his right to free speech, and though the district court and circuit court of appeals sided with Fraser, the Supreme Court overturned those rulings and said that his suspension had been constitutional. The Court said that while students should still expect reasonable chances to exercise free speech, the school has the right to monitor and punish sexually vulgar speech. It’s a limiting of Tinker, but a helpful one for educators looking to strike a balance between speech and censorship.
  9. Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier: Another clarification of Tinker, this 1988 ruling dealt with student newspapers. A student newspaper had two pages of stories deleted before going to press, including an article about pregnancy among students and one about students whose parents had divorced. The principal said he didn’t think the anonymous names in the story were enough to protect the identities of the students in question, and that some of the topics weren’t appropriate for younger students. The Supreme Court agreed that even though students have a right to free speech, that doesn’t mean the school-sponsored newspaper can’t remove stories, especially when those stories conflict with what are termed "legitimate pedagogical goals." A school-funded paper isn’t the same as a public forum, so students’ speech rights are a bit more limited.
  10. Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe: Back to religion, that old judicial chestnut. This 2000 Supreme Court case dealt with prayer at football games. A high school in Texas allowed a student chaplain to recite Christian prayers over the P.A. system before football games, which raised the ire of some non-Christian parents, who sued under the Establishment Clause. The district court and the circuit court of appeals found that the prayers were acceptable as long as they were deemed "nonsectarian" and "non-proselytizing," but the parents appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court found that such prayers were indeed unconstitutional, since the prayers were happening at school-sponsored events, on school property, using members of the student body. As a result, no amount of nonsectarian labeling could change the fact that the prayers would seem to be issued at the school’s request and with its approval, which violates the Establishment Clause. School prayer is a hot-button issue in American education, so decisions like this one always bring heated exchanges. However, decisions like this one — and the discussions they create — are necessary to preserving the freedom of all students.

 

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