Skip to Main Content
university logo

University Library

Education Law

Find cases

Examples of historic US education cases

  • Bethel School District 403 v. Fraser, 478 U. S. 675 (1986) -- At a school assembly of approximately 600 high school students, Matthew Fraser made a speech nominating a fellow student for elective office. In his speech, Fraser used what some observers believed was a graphic sexual metaphor to promote the candidacy of his friend. As part of its disciplinary code, Bethel High School enforced a rule prohibiting conduct which "substantially interferes with the educational process . . . including the use of obscene, profane language or gestures." Fraser was suspended from school for two days.
  • Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, 496 U. S. 226 (1990) -- The school administration at Westside High School denied permission to a group of students to form a Christian club with the same privileges and meeting terms as other Westside after-school student clubs. In addition to citing the Establishment Clause, Westside refused the club's formation because it lacked a faculty sponsor. When the school board upheld the administration's denial, Mergens and several other students sued. The students alleged that Westside's refusal violated the Equal Access Act, which requires that schools in receipt of federal funds provide "equal access" to student groups seeking to express "religious, political, philosophical, or other content" messages. On appeal from an adverse District Court ruling, the Court of Appeals found in favor of the students. The Supreme Court granted Westside certiorari.
  • Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, 457 U. S. 853 (1982) -- The Island Trees Union Free School District's Board of Education (the "Board"), acting contrary to the recommendations of a committee of parents and school staff, ordered that certain books be removed from its district's junior high and high school libraries. In support of its actions, the Board said such books were: "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy." Acting through his friend Francis Pico, and on behalf of several other students, Steven Pico brought suit in federal district court challenging the Board's decision to remove the books. The Board won; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed. The Board petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.
  • Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U. S. 176 (1982) -- the U.S. Supreme Court on June 28, 1982, held (6–3) that the Education of the Handicapped Act of 1974 (EHA; renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act[IDEA] in 1990), as amended by the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, did not require that the special instruction and supportive services provided under the law by state governments to disabled students be designed to help them achieve their full potential as learners. Instead, it was sufficient that the instruction and services be such as “to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction.” The ruling marked the first time that the court had interpreted any portion of the EHA.

Under the EHA, state governments, through local school boards, were required to provide disabled students with a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the “least restrictive environment”—i.e., in classrooms with nondisabled children, where feasible—as detailed in an individualized education program (IEP) developed for each child by school officials in consultation with parents or guardians. The court’s decision in Rowley thus defined the term free appropriate public education.

  • Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954) -- On account of their race, black children in Washington D.C. were denied admission to the same public schools that white children attended.
  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) -- Black children were denied admission to public schools attended by white children under laws requiring or permitting segregation according to the races. The white and black schools approached equality in terms of buildings, curricula, qualifications, and teacher salaries. This case was decided together with Briggs v. Elliott, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, and Gebhart v. Belton. (A separate but related case -- Bolling v. Sharpe -- presented the same issue in the context of the District of Columbia, which is not subject to the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment because the District is not a state.)
  • Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1 (2004) -- Michael Newdow's daughter attended public school in the Elk Grove Unified School District in California. Elk Grove teachers began school days by leading students in a voluntary recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, including the words "under God" added by a 1954 Congressional act. Newdow sued in federal district court in California, arguing that making students listen - even if they choose not to participate - to the words "under God" violates the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

The district court dismissed Newdow's complaint for lack of standing because he and the mother of his daughter are divorced and he does not have custody. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Newdow did have standing "to challenge a practice that interferes with his right to direct the religious education of his daughter." The Ninth Circuit ruled that Congress's 1954 act adding the words "under God" to the Pledge and the school district policy requiring it be recited both violated the First Amendment's establishment clause.

  • Forest Grove School District v. T. A., 557 U.S. 230 (2009) -- In 2003, T.A., a former student in the Forest Grove School District, sought to be evaluated for suspected learning disabilities. In 2004, the Office of Administrative Hearings for the State of Oregon determined that T.A. was disabled and eligible for special education under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. As T.A. was no longer enrolled in the Forest Grove School District, but attending private school, the hearing officer ordered the school district to reimburse T.A. for the private school tuition ($5,200 per month), determining it had failed to offer him a free and appropriate public education.

The school district appealed the order in an Oregon federal district court arguing that reimbursement was not appropriate because T.A. unilaterally withdrew from school, never received special education services while enrolled, and withdrew for reasons unrelated to his learning disability. The district court invalidated the order. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court and upheld the order. It reasoned that IDEA provided the courts broad discretion in order to achieve "equitable relief" for disabled students, including reimbursement for private school tuition.

  • Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U. S. 260 (1988) -- The Spectrum, the school-sponsored newspaper of Hazelwood East High School, was written and edited by students. In May 1983, Robert E. Reynolds, the school principal, received the page proofs for the May 13 issue. Reynolds found two of the articles in the issue to be inappropriate and ordered that the pages on which the articles appeared be withheld from publication. Cathy Kuhlmeier and two other former Hazelwood East students brought the case to court.
  • Jenkins v. Talladega City Board of Education, 115 F. 3rd 821 (11th Cir. 1997) -- An elementary school teacher and a guidance counselor, both female, directed two eight-year-old female second graders to a school restroom, then ordered them to remove their clothing in an effort to find $7 that one or both of the girls had allegedly stolen from a classmate. The money was never located.

The students, through their parents, filed suit against the teacher and counselor, as well as other school officials (hereinafter the defendants), alleging that the strip searches violated the girls’ Fourth Amendment constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches. The district court dismissed the suit, finding that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. The students appealed.

  • Lau v. Nichols, 414 U. S. 563 (1974) -- A civil rights case that was brought by Chinese American students living in San Francisco, California who had limited English proficiency. The students claimed that they were not receiving special help in school due to their inability to speak English, which they argued they were entitled to under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because of its ban on educational discrimination on the basis of national origin. Finding that the lack of linguistically appropriate accommodations (e.g. educational services in English) effectively denied the Chinese students equal educational opportunities on the basis of their ethnicity, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 ruled in favor of the students, thus expanding rights of students nationwide with limited English proficiency. The Supreme Court stated that these students should be treated with equality among the schools.
  • Mills v. Board of Education, of the District of Columbia, 348 F. Supp. 866 (D.C., 1972) -- One of two important federal trial court rulings that helped to lay the foundation that eventually led to the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), laws that changed the face of American education. Prior to 1975 and the enactment of these laws, many schools did not offer special education for students with disabilities. As such, millions of students were denied appropriate services or excluded from public education entirely. The other case was Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1971, 1972).
  • New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U. S. 325 (1985) -- T.L.O. was a high school student. School officials searched her purse suspecting she had cigarettes. The officials discovered cigarettes, a small amount of marijuana, and a list containing the names of students who owed T.L.O. money. T.L.O. was charged with possession of marijuana. Before trial, T.L.O. moved to suppress evidence discovered in the search, but the Court denied her motion. The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court of New Jersey, Middlesex County found her guilty and sentenced her to probation for one year. On appeal, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress evidence. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, holding that the exclusionary rule of the Fourth Amendment applies to searches and seizures conducted by school officials in public schools.
  • Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 334 F. Supp. 1257 (E.D. Pa. 1971) -- Contested a state law that specifically allowed public schools to deny services to children "who have not attained a mental age of five years" at the time they would ordinarily enroll in first grade. Under a consent decree, the state agreed to provide full access to a free public education to children with mental retardation up to age 21. That case also established the standard of appropriateness—that is, that each child be offered an education appropriate to his or her learning capacities—and established a clear preference for the least restrictive placement for each child.
  • Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896) -- The state of Louisiana enacted a law that required separate railway cars for blacks and whites. In 1892, Homer Adolph Plessy--who was seven-eighths Caucasian--took a seat in a "whites only" car of a Louisiana train. He refused to move to the car reserved for blacks and was arrested.
  • Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U. S. 265 (1978) -- Allan Bakke, a thirty-five-year-old white man, had twice applied for admission to the University of California Medical School at Davis. He was rejected both times. The school reserved sixteen places in each entering class of one hundred for "qualified" minorities, as part of the university's affirmative action program, in an effort to redress longstanding, unfair minority exclusions from the medical profession. Bakke's qualifications (college GPA and test scores) exceeded those of any of the minority students admitted in the two years Bakke's applications were rejected. Bakke contended, first in the California courts, then in the Supreme Court, that he was excluded from admission solely on the basis of race.
  • Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969) -- In December 1965, a group of students in Des Moines held a meeting in the home of 16-year-old Christopher Eckhardt to plan a public showing of their support for a truce in the Vietnam war. They decided to wear black armbands throughout the holiday season and to fast on December 16 and New Year’s Eve. The principals of the Des Moines school learned of the plan and met on December 14 to create a policy that stated that any student wearing an armband would be asked to remove it, with refusal to do so resulting in suspension. On December 16, Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt wore their armbands to school and were sent home. The following day, John Tinker did the same with the same result. The students did not return to school until after New Year’s Day, the planned end of the protest.

Through their parents, the students sued the school district for violating the students’ right of expression and sought an injunction to prevent the school district from disciplining the students. The district court dismissed the case and held that the school district’s actions were reasonable to uphold school discipline. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the decision without opinion.

  • Winkelman v. Parma City School District, 550 U.S. 516 (2007) -- Jeff and Sandee Winkelman claimed that Parma City School District failed to give their disabled son Jacob a "free appropriate public education" as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Despite the Winkelmans' opposition, the school district planned to place Jacob in a public elementary school. After a preliminary school district hearing affirmed Jacob's placement, the Winkelmans placed Jacob in a private school at their own expense and petitioned a federal District Court for reimbursement.

The District Court ruled for the School District. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit dismissed the suit because the Winkelmans lacked a lawyer. The Winkelmans argued that according to the IDEA, "any party aggrieved by the findings" of a preliminary school district hearing may appeal in a federal court. Also, because the IDEA demands active parental involvement in order to enforce proper child placement, the parent should be able to appear in court "pro se" - without a lawyer. The Sixth Circuit rejected both arguments and held that the IDEA does not establish any right of a non-lawyer parent to represent his disabled child in federal court. Non-lawyer parents cannot represent themselves either, the Circuit Court ruled, because the IDEA protects the rights of the child, not the parents.

Courts in the American justice system

How to Read a Case Citation

image showing how to read a case citation

Name of Parties

Plaintiff v. Defendant

Example: Marvin v. Marvin

Official Citation

Volume number California Reports Third Series Page

Example: 18 Cal. 3d 660

Parallel Citations

Pacific Reporter Second Series

Example: 557 P.2d 106

California Reporter

Example: 134 Cal. Rptr. 815 (1976)

How to Read a Judicial Opinion

Find laws

Examples of US education laws

  • PL 94-142, Education for All Handicapped Children Act -- The first national piece of legislation mandating appropriate and free education for students with disabilities was signed into law by President Gerald Ford in November 1975. This single piece of legislation has been the cornerstone of special education legislation.
  • PL 95-166, School Lunch Act and Child Nutrition Amendment - Amended the National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 “to revise and extend the summer food program, to revise the special milk program, to revise the school breakfast program, to authorize the Secretary of Agriculture to carry out a program of nutrition information and education as part of food service programs for children conducted under such Acts, and for other purposes.”
  • PL 98-377, Equal Access Act -- Requires that school districts grant equal access to student groups who wish to meet for religious, political, or philosophical purposes if the school allows other types of non-curriculum-related student groups to meet.
  • PL 103-382, Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 -- Signed into law on October 20, 1994, the legislation reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) through fiscal year 1999. The ESEA authorizes most federal elementary and secondary education programs, including the Title I program to provide compensatory education to educationally disadvantaged students.
  • PL 107-56, U. S. PATRIOT Act -- The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001.
  • PL 107-110, No Child Left Behind Act -- It was passed by Congress and signed into law by the President in 2001. Although it is referred to as NCLB, it actually amends longstanding legislation, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
  • PL 108-184, National Museum of African American History & Culture -- In December 2003, Congress enacted this act establishing a museum within the Smithsonian Institution to be known as the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
  • PL 110-84, College Cost Reduction & Access Act -- Signed into law on Sept. 27, 2007, it lowers monthly student loan payments on federally guaranteed student loans whether or not they're in public service. It cancels remaining debt for public service employees after 10 years of public service employment (Loan Forgiveness for Public Service) and after 25 years for all other students.
  • PL 111-296, Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 -- (part of the reauthorization of funding for child nutrition under the original Child Nutrition Act) On December 13, 2010, the President signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, reauthorizing numerous child nutrition programs until September 30, 2015. Included in this legislation are the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), the Summer Food Service Program, the Afterschool Meal Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed).
  • PL 114-95, Every Student Succeeds Act -- The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed by President Obama on December 10, 2015. This bipartisan measure reauthorizes the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation’s national education law and longstanding commitment to equal opportunity for all students.
  • Bilingual Education Act of 1968 -- Noted as the first official federal recognition of the needs of students with limited English speaking ability. Since 1968, the Act has undergone four reauthorizations with amendments, reflecting the changing needs of these students and of society as a whole. Even the definition of the population served has been broadened from limited English speaking to limited English proficient (LEP) students.
  • Equal Educational Opportunity Act (20 USC Sec. 1703) -- Affirms that no state shall deny educational opportunity based on race, color, sex, or national origin by engaging in deliberate segregation by an educational agency; failing to remedy deliberate segregation; assigning a student, other than to a school closest to his or her residence, that results in a greater degree of segregation of students on the basis of race, color, sex, or national origin; discriminating by an educational agency on the basis of race, color, or national origin in the employment of faculty or staff; transferring students from one school to another, voluntarily or otherwise, if the purpose and effect of doing so would have increased segregation on the basis of race, color, or national origin; or failing to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs.

How Laws are Made

John F. Kennedy Memorial Library
California State University, Los Angeles
5151 State University Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90032-8300