In the good ole days, when ever that was, the only time you talked to a lawyer about school was when you were trying to determine what Law School you should go to when you finished your Bachelor’s Degree. Since Brown v The Board of Education, lawyers have become more and more involved in the educational process; usually endeavoring to insure that everyone has a equal shot at getting access to the education that they deserve. In this regards, Education Law can be thought of as an extension of Civil Rights Law.
The most obvious example of this was the suits against various school boards to stop the practice of segregation. When the Supreme Court declared that separate school systems were not, by law, equal school systems, it was up to a whole cadre of lawyers and judges to determine what constituted a separate, segregated school system. As more and more cases were settled it became more and more difficult for systems to keep black and white and later Latino students separated in different schools.
While certainly not completely settled, the issue of denial of education based on race or ethnic origin has faded from the forefront of the legal battlefield of Education Law. Other groups, seeing the progress that blacks had begun to make by using lawyers to sue school districts over equal access, began to use the same tools. Female athletes got courts and the government to give them equal access to sports facilities and equipment. The physically handicapped got the right to physical access to education facilities adapted to their physical limitations. The mentally handicapped got access to mainstream education with facilities and assistance adapted to their mental limitations. Finally, poor and disadvantaged students have gotten the right to transfer from substandard schools to schools that do a better job of educating their students. All of this was the result of lawyers fighting to ensure that people get access to equal educational opportunities.
While the big fights in Education Law seem to be over, with the principal of right to equal access being firmly established in the legal system, the role for lawyers in Education Law will continue. With the general rules in place, the fights now will be over the definitions and details. What constitutes adequate funding for schools? Can a rich suburb spend more money on its students than a poor rural or urban school districts? Does equal access require the profoundly handicapped to sit in all of the same classes as the ‘normal’ students? Are advanced placement classes for gifted students the legal equivalent of remedial classes for the educationally deprived? Which handicapped students should be included in scholastic testing to ensure schools are performing to standards? Lawyers will continue to litigate to force questions like these to be considered and resolved.
Lawyers will be approached by parents and activists to take on the individual cases of denial of access. Parents will question why their blind son or daughter is not allowed to take physical education classes for their safety. Why can one student have a Seeing Eye Dog and another be denied a dog to act as his ears in the same school district? Is it better to have someone read tests for a blind student or should the school provide the tests in brail. Should only deaf students be given instruction in the use of ASL or should all students be given access to that instruction? Is bilingual education better equal access than remedial English classes?
Educational Law, and the lawyers that practice it, will continue to be a part of the educational system for the foreseeable future. While many will question the costs of their litigation and the increased costs that accrue to the school systems, lawyers will continue to be a necessary part of that system to ensure that every student has a fair and equal access to the educational system.