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Legal Literacy for Charter School Administrators


by David M. Schimmel, Suzanne Eckes & Colleen Chesnut - September 27, 2013

This commentary briefly highlights two illustrative legal cases involving charter schools. Although these controversies could have arisen in traditional public schools, we believe that these legal controversies could have been easily avoided in charter schools had the school leader been legally literate.

School districts often spend thousands of dollars per year on litigation related to everything from special education to teacher dismissal (Andren, 2010).  School personnel also waste a lot of time addressing legal issues that could have been avoided if they had received training in this area.  While many traditional public schools can rely on their school district’s legal counsel when legal issues arise, many charter schools do not have this option.  Due to their smaller size, relative newness, and inequitable funding, charter schools in some cases may lack the resources to adequately address legal issues.  As a result, some charter schools must fill their legal gap through pro bono representation or from their board members who may not be experts in school law.  


Also, because many charter school teachers and leaders enter education through nontraditional channels, it is likely that charter school educators do not have the legal training that many traditional public school administrators and teachers have obtained through their pre-service and/or graduate-level programs.  For example, there are no certification requirements (or very minimal requirements) for charter school administrators in Arizona, California, Illinois, New York and Texas. The lack of legal knowledge among charter school leaders is unfortunate because Militello’s (2006) study found that public school principals identified “legal aspects” as the most important area to include in professional development for new principals and the second most important area for experienced principals.  We have no reason to doubt that “legal aspects” are just as important for charter school leaders.


Because most charter school teachers and leaders have had little legal instruction, they may not know many of the legal issues related to public schooling.  As a result, charter school personnel’s lack of legal awareness may lead to litigation. As Martin (2004) contends: “should charter schools fail to take precautionary measures, they may simply become more vulnerable to needless litigation and exposure to greater liability” (p. 101).  


This commentary briefly highlights two illustrative legal cases involving charter schools. Although these controversies could have arisen in traditional public schools, we believe that these legal controversies could have been easily avoided in charter schools had the school leader been legally literate.


MEADOWS V. LESH


In a federal district court case from New York, a student brought a lawsuit against her charter school (Meadows v. Lesh, 2011).  The student was a member of a Pentecostal Christian Church who was participating in a fast associated with her church.  The student’s parents requested that she be excused from the cafeteria during lunch in order to maintain the fast.  It appeared that the school principal refused to honor her fast because she was Christian, although the principal stated that the school would have honored requests by Muslim or Jewish students to fast, bringing up both Freedom of Religion and Equal Protection claims.  Additionally, the student argued that charter school officials were acting as state agents when they violated her Constitutional rights. The charter school argued, since charter schools are not state actors, that the student’s religious beliefs were not sincerely held and that the principal’s conduct could not be considered official school policy.  


However, the court held that charter schools are part of the public school system, subject to the same legal requirements as other public schools, including the guarantee of constitutional protections to their students.  Furthermore, the court reasoned that the student had sufficiently stated the sincerity of her religious beliefs regarding fasting and that the school discriminated against her, particularly due to the principal’s statements that Muslim or Jewish students participating in fasts would be allowed to do so.  However, the court agreed with the defendant that the principal's actions could not be considered official policy since New York law establishes that a charter school's board of trustees are responsible for making school policy, rather than the principal.


LINDSEY V. MATAYOSHI


In another case, charter school leaders may have deprived a student of her rights to due process when they expelled her from school (Lindsey v. Matayoshi, 2012).  The plaintiff, a fourteen-year-old student, was involved in a physical altercation with another student and subsequently suspended for two days.  However, on the first day of the suspension, school officials informed the student and her parents that she would not be allowed to return to school, and did not offer education in an alternative setting, effectively removing the student from her education for a prolonged period of time.  Additionally, the expulsion procedures and a hearing took place after the expulsion, providing inadequate due process.  Thus, the student argued that she was deprived of her protected right to an education under state law, as well as her rights to due process under state and federal law.  The defendant state and school officials argued that expulsion procedures were adequate and that the student was not deprived of her right to an education.  


The U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii ruled that the student’s claims under state and federal law were valid.  According to precedent set by the Supreme Court in Goss v. Lopez (1975), students enjoy a property right to an education, established under state constitutions such as Hawaii’s.  Since the school did not offer the student an option to attend another school after her expulsion, it effectively barred her from receiving an education.  Furthermore, the court supported the student’s due process claim, as expulsion procedures did not provide her with adequate opportunity to present evidence and refute the charges, particularly because the meeting of the school board with the expelled student’s parents occurred after her expulsion.  


The litigation discussed above is unfortunate.  In the Meadows and Lindsey cases, for example, attorneys estimated that lawyers’ fees alone could range from $30,000 to $50,000 for each side without even going to trial.  If the case went to trial, the fees would probably be double or more.  Furthermore, lawyers’ fees and court costs are only part of the equation.  Of equal concern are the substantial time school staff spend preparing for litigation, the distraction from education, the emotional toll, and the serious damage to the reputation of a school that is publically held responsible for unlawful action.


The two cases discussed above illustrate how charter school administrators violated a series of clearly established laws. What is striking and puzzling about cases such as Meadows and Lindsey is that the violations of the charter school administrators were not about obscure, confusing or little known laws but concerned violations of clearly established, well-known constitutional principles.  In fact, it seems unlikely that any administrator who had taken a course in school law or had consulted a school law text or attorney would not have known that students are entitled to due process before being expelled or that religious discrimination violates the Constitution.  The question is why did charter school administrators make these legal errors?


It is possible that a few administrators knowingly violate the law because very few parents will take the time and trouble to challenge them in court.  But we believe that the vast majority of charter school administrators do not intentionally violate the rights of students or teachers.  Instead we suspect that most legal violations occur because administrators are uninformed or misinformed about school law.  Therefore we urge that all charter school administrators be required to take a course in school law or in other ways demonstrate a basic level of legal knowledge and understanding of the laws that impact their jobs.  Of course, we recognize that no school law course will prevent all litigation or legal mistakes.  We also recognize that establishing any competency requirement may seem to conflict with a philosophy that wants to free charter school administrators from the straightjackets of traditional education courses and certification requirements. But the reality is that charter school administrators make decisions every day that could lead to litigation if they unintentionally violate the law by depriving students or teachers of their protected rights.  That is why we urge charter school authorizing agencies to establish an expectation of minimum legal competency for all charter school administrators.  As a result, such legally literate administrators will be able to spend less time, money and energy defending legal mistakes and more time focusing on the education of their students.


References


Andren, K. (2010, January 27).  School districts spend thousands on litigation over special education. PennLive.com. Retrieved from http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2010/01/school_districts_spend_thousan.html


Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975).


Lindsey v. Matayoshi, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 65031 (D. Haw. 2012).  


Martin, R. (2004). Charting the court challenges to charter schools. Pennsylvania State Law Review, 109(43), 43-102.


Meadows v. Lesh, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115401 (W.D.N.Y. 2011).


Militello, M. (2006, November). The principal shortage in Massachusetts. University Council of Educational Administration.  Paper Presentation in San Antonio, TX.






Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 27, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17265, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 1:51:28 PM

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About the Author
  • David Schimmel
    University of Massachusetts, Amherst
    E-mail Author
    DAVID SCHIMMEL is Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and is author or coauthor of over seventy-five articles and seven books about law and education including Principals Teaching the Law: 10 Legal Lessons Your Teachers Must Know (2010). Professor Schimmel is recipient of the Education Press Association of Americaís Distinguished Achievement Award for Excellence in Educational Journalism and the Education Law Associationís McGhehey (lifetime achievement) award. His current teaching, research and writing focuses on promoting legal literacy for teachers. Schimmel received his J.D. from Yale University.
  • Suzanne Eckes
    Indiana University
    SUZANNE ECKES is an associate professor at Indiana University. She has published several articles, book chapters and books related to school legal issues. She is a co-editor on the Principal's Legal Handbook and a monthly contributor to Principal Leadership magazine. Eckes received her Ed.M. from Harvard and her J.D./Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin Madison.
  • Colleen Chesnut
    Indiana University
    E-mail Author
    COLLEEN CHESNUT is an instructor for an undergraduate school law course at Indiana University. Her current research focuses on issues of educational equity for English language learners and teacher collaboration, and she spent several years as an early childhood and bilingual teacher in Chicago Public Schools. Chesnut is a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University.
 
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