What if the federal law guaranteed every child equal educational opportunity, and if they didn’t get it, their parents could sue?
That’s one of the more compelling suggestions in a collection of education ideas for the next president, released this week by Bellwether Education Partners. It comes from Ben Austin, an advocate for parent trigger laws in California. He’s now on the board of Students Matter, an organization pushing to transform teacher tenure and other educational policies through the courts.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in San Antonio vs. Rodriguez that there is no federal constitutional right to a quality education. The result of that decision has been that, with few exceptions, claims related to public education have been litigated exclusively in state courts, and students who happen to live in the vast majority of states without a legal framework to support such a civil rights claim are simply out of luck.
Since Rodriguez, the world has changed, but our public education system has not. My daughter’s kindergarten classroom looks pretty much the same as my own kindergarten classroom. A generation ago, a federal right to a quality public education may not have been necessary. America’s student population was less diverse, and the economy children were graduating into was more egalitarian and localized. Many good jobs didn’t require critical thinking or even a post-secondary or college education. Those days are long gone.
That’s why Congress and the president should amend federal law to state what is patently obvious to every parent in America: The purpose of public education must be to serve children. And they should empower America’s parents—whose only interests are children—to hold the bureaucracy accountable.
Last year President Obama signed into law the first update to federal education law since 2001, called the Every Student Succeeds Act. In order to fulfill the name of that new law, our nation’s leaders should amend it to include a federal right, enabling every public school parent in America to challenge in court an education-related law or regulation that they believe is systematically harming children. If they prove that systematic harm, they would win injunctive relief, a court mandate declaring the law or regulation invalid and requiring that it be changed.
The law, he writes, should be tailored to allow parents to attack systemic inequities, but not individual issues faced by individual children. One bad teacher would not trigger a legal cause of action; policies that systematically deny low-income children access to effective teachers would. And while lawsuits could overturn policies, the plaintiffs (and their lawyers) shouldn’t be allowed to collect monetary damages from their lawsuits.
The principle behind Austin’s idea is simple: “If public education laws inequitably fund low-income children, parents should have the power to change them. If public education laws ensure that all children, or all low-income children, are statistically less likely to receive a quality education, parents should have the power to fix them.”
Austin’s group is part of a national push, in which advocates seek to establish a right to a high-quality education through the courts. His proposal would help those efforts along. If the federal government doesn’t make the change, perhaps there are ways for states to enshrine similar rights in their constitutions.