We should care who sits on the U.S. Supreme Court because court decisions affect our collective bargaining rights, the access our students have to the educational opportunities they deserve, and our children’s (and grandchildren’s) future. Justices may hold their appointments for life; that gives them ample time to impact the rights we hold dear—for better or worse.
Here are a few meaningful rulings for education and educators—from the recent decision reaffirming collective bargaining rights for public employees, to the 63-year-old decision ruling that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional. We’ve also included pending cases that will have far-reaching impacts when decisions are handed down.
Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley (pending 2017)
Missouri’s state constitution, like those in many states, forbids any state financial aid from going—directly or indirectly—to a religious institution. The Supreme Court will decide whether state bans on contributions to religious institutions, like Missouri’s, violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause or the religious clauses of the First Amendment. A decision striking down Missouri’s constitutional provision could result in states being required to fund religious schools along with public schools.
Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. (pending 2017)
G.G. is a transgender student who uses the boys’ bathroom at his Virginia high school without incident. But spurred on by community disdain for G.G, the school board adopted a policy requiring students to use only the bathroom associated with their gender assigned at birth. The Supreme Court will decide whether transgender students have a right under federal law to be treated consistent with their gender identity.
Both public employees and public employers have a compelling interest in having strong and effective collective bargaining. The 4-4 ruling left intact the precedent established by Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the 1977 case in which the court upheld the fair share fees that support collective bargaining.
Abigail Fisher applied and was denied admission to the University of Texas, and sued, saying the university had practiced racial discrimination. The court upheld the university’s race-conscious admissions program, which aims to matriculate a “critical mass” of minority students so that all may reap the benefits of a diverse student body, ruling that it is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Recognizing that their schools were highly segregated by race, Seattle assigned students to certain schools, using race as one factor in the decision, which resulted in less segregation and a narrower achievement gap. The Supreme Court held that public schools were prohibited from considering race as a factor in assignments, even if the school district wished to make up for past discrimination against people of color, because such consideration was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)
Barbara Grutter alleged that her Equal Protection rights were violated by the University of Michigan Law School’s attempt to gain a diverse student body that resulted in the denial of her application for admission. The Supreme Court disagreed and held that institutions of higher education have a legitimate interest in promoting diversity.
Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002)
The Ohio Pilot Scholarship Program allowed certain Ohio families to receive tuition aid from the state. This would help offset the cost of tuition at private, including parochial (religiously affiliated), schools. The Supreme Court rejected First Amendment challenges to the program and stated that such aid does not violate the Establishment Clause.
Alexander v. Sandoval (2001)
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. In this case, the Supreme Court held that individuals (a private person, or a class action) who sue under Title VI for policies that have a discriminatory effect must prove that the policies in question have a discriminatory purpose. This means that teachers and students cannot challenge state and district funding systems that favor wealthy schools over schools that serve people of color and poor students.
Matthew N. Fraser, a student at Bethel High School, was suspended for three days for delivering an obscene and provocative speech to the student body. The Supreme Court held that his free speech rights were not violated by his suspension.
Plyler v. Doe (1982)
States cannot constitutionally deny students a free public education on account of their immigration status. By a 5-4 vote, the Court found that any resources which might be saved from excluding undocumented children from public schools were far outweighed by the harms imposed on society at large from denying them an education.
The court held that the First Amendment does not prohibit governments from requiring non-union public employees from paying their “fair share” of union fees for collective bargaining, contract administration and similar purposes. The case was brought by teachers who were unwilling to pay dues and sought to have the agency shop clause declared invalid under Michigan law and the U.S. Constitution.
Milliken v. Bradley (1974)
The Supreme Court vastly limited Brown v. Board of Education’s scope when it overturned a district court’s order requiring inter-district desegregation involving Detroit and its suburbs. The Court held that the suburban districts had not engaged in intentional segregation, so they could not be included in the judicial remedy. This decision has resulted in entrenched school segregation in metropolitan areas throughout the country.
Parents brought suit against the school district believing that the state’s acceptance of funding gaps between rich and poor school districts violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court declared that “though education is one of the most important services performed by the state, it is not within the limited category of rights recognized by this court as guaranteed by the constitution.”
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
The court struck down the long-held doctrine of “separate but equal,” ruling that the segregated schools of Topeka, Kansas violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision was a reversal of the court’s ruling in 1896 n Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that separate facilities were constitutional as long as they were equal.