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Schools and School Districts

Private School Vouchers: Church Vs. State, Charter Schools: The Educational Petri Dish, Further Readings

School districts are quasi-municipal corporations created and organized by state legislatures and charged with the administration of public schools within the state. A quasi-municipal corporation is a political body created for the sole purpose of performing one public function. States divide up their school systems into districts because localized administration and policy making are more efficient and more responsive to community needs than one state-level bureaucracy.

A school district encompasses a specific geographical area with defined boundaries. In most areas, the head of the school district is called the superintendent. Each school district contains at least one school. Typically, a school district includes primary schools, also called grade schools, middle or junior high schools, and high schools. A school district's boundaries may be the same as the boundaries of a city. Multiple school districts may exist within larger cities, and in rural areas, a school district may encompass several towns.

Each state has numerous laws pertaining to public schools and school districts, but state statutes do not cover every educational concern. State legislatures delegate many aspects of public education to school districts. School districts have the power to fashion curricula and make rules and regulations that apply to the schools, school employees, and students within the district. School districts also have power over such matters as arranging for the construction and maintenance of educational buildings and facilities in the district. School districts may, in turn, delegate some of their powers to individual schools.

State and federal revenues pay for only about half of all educational costs. The rest of the burden for construction, maintenance, and improvement of school facilities, salaries, and other educational costs is borne by local government. Most states give school districts the power to levy local taxes for educational purposes. This taxing power is limited by the state legislature. If a school district wants to raise taxes beyond what the legislature allows, it may seek approval from the voters in the district in a REFERENDUM or proposition vote.

Most state legislatures require that school districts be governed by a school board, board of education, or similar body. School boards govern the school district's actions and can also take action on their own. School boards appoint superintendents, review important decisions made by the district's administrators, and fashion educational policies for the district. Most school boards are comprised of several members elected by voters who live within the boundaries of the district. In some states, school board members may be appointed by a state or local governing body or a designated government official.

School boards hold regular meetings that are open to the public. A school board must give notice to the public prior to the meeting. Notice generally is given through mailings or by publishing the time and place of the meeting in local newspapers. School board meetings give the public an opportunity to express opinions on educational policy.

State statutes set forth minimum qualifications for public school teachers. Most states require full-time teachers to have a four-year degree from a college or university and to have completed a student teaching program. States may add other prerequisites, such as physical and psychological examinations and drug tests. Upon completing all the prerequisites, a teacher may obtain the license or permit necessary to teach in a particular state.

States require public school teachers to complete a probationary period before they receive tenure. In the context of employment, tenure is a status that carries with it certain rights and protections, the most important of which is the protection from summary dismissal. A teacher who has gained tenure status may not be terminated from a teaching position without the benefit of a lengthy procedure. The termination process may include a detailed account of reasons for the termination, an opportunity for the teacher to correct any problems, a hearing with school district administrators, review and judgment by school district administrators, and, finally, a meeting with the school board, which votes on whether the teacher should be dismissed. Teachers who have not attained tenure

have no recourse for a firing. In any case, a public school teacher can only be terminated for cause, or some substantial, articulable reason.

A teaching license may be revoked if the teacher engages in conduct that demonstrates unfitness to teach. The prohibited conduct varies with different states, school districts, and school boards. A criminal conviction that involves moral turpitude, such as a conviction for theft, dishonesty, or sexual assault, generally is a valid ground for revocation of a teaching license.

Schools and school districts have a great deal of control over public school students. Rules and regulations can vary from school to school and range from restrictions on appearance and hair length to prohibitions on electronic transmission devices, or beepers. Schools may not implement unreasonable rules, however. Before a student can be suspended from school for a lengthy time period, the school must give the student notice of the intent to suspend and an opportunity to be heard by school officials. Students may not be forced to pray in school or to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag. Teachers may inflict CORPORAL PUNISHMENT to control, train, or educate a student but may use only such force as is necessary for those purposes. The amount of force that is permissible varies according to the situation, with careful consideration given to the student's age and maturity. A teacher may use more force on an older, physically mature high school student than on a younger, less mature student. Despite the general acceptance by the courts of some measure of corporal punishment, the threat of litigation makes corporal punishment a potentially risky behavior.

Beginning in the 1990s, school boards adopted ZERO TOLERANCE polices towards drugs and weapons on school grounds. Violations of zero tolerance policies typically lead to suspension or expulsion from the school. The federal Drug Free School Act and Gun Free School Act require the expulsion and arrest of students who bring illegal drugs and firearms to school. At the heart of these policies and laws is the desire to protect students and teachers and to prevent illegal activities from taking place on school district property.

However, school districts have broadened zero tolerance to include an array of infractions, including the wearing of clothing associated with GANGS and threats directed at other persons. Zero tolerance policies have attracted critics, who contend that overly rigid interpretations of the rules, coupled with severe punishments, can lead to disproportionate results. In 2001, the AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION (ABA) issued a statement in which it criticized zero tolerance rules for failing to take into account the individual circumstances of each case or the individual student's history. The ABA called for the end of such rigid policies. Nevertheless, the courts generally support school district zero tolerance policies, especially when drugs or weapons are the issue.

School districts have the right to require students to take drug tests if they wish to participate in athletic and extracurricular activities. The Supreme Court, in Board of Education, Pottawatomie County v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822, 122 S.Ct. 2559, 153 L.Ed.2d 735 (2002), concluded that the drug-testing program was reasonable under the FOURTH AMENDMENT because it furthered the school district's "important interest in preventing and deterring drug use among its schoolchildren." Moreover, the Court found that violation of student privacy interests was minimal.

School districts are also not bound by rigid rules of privacy when it comes to having students grade each others papers and tests. The Supreme Court, in Owasso Independent School District No. I-011 v. Falvo, 534 U.S. 426, 122 S.Ct. 934, 151 L.Ed.2d 896 (2002), reviewed the scope of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) 20 U.S.C.A. § 1232 (g), which regulates the release of student education records. The Court rejected the claim that peer grading violated FERPA. To rule otherwise would "force all instructors to take time, which otherwise could be spent teaching and in preparation, to correct an assortment of daily student assignments." The Court concluded that Congress would never have meant to "intervene in this drastic fashion with traditional state functions."

A school board has power only over the public schools within its school district. Private schools must comply with generally applicable federal, state, and local laws, but they are privately owned and operated and are not obligated to follow the rules and regulations of the school

district in which they are located. Private schools are not governed by the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions in the same way that public schools are. Constitutions are designed mainly to protect persons from the actions of government. Public schools are funded by governments and so must answer to constitutions, but private schools are not funded by public monies, so their actions are not deemed governmental in nature.

Public school districts have little involvement with private schools for another reason: the Establishment Clause of the FIRST AMENDMENT. Under the Establishment Clause, Congress may not make any laws respecting the establishment of, or prohibiting the free exercise of, religion. The Establishment Clause has been made applicable to the states by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has interpreted the clause to mean that public schools should be free of religious influences. This does not mean that public schools can have no connection with private schools. In many school districts, public schools share buses and textbooks with private schools, and these arrangements have not been declared unconstitutional. In 1997, in AGOSTINI V. FELTON, 521U.S. 203, 117 S. Ct. 1997, 138 L. Ed. 2d 391, the Supreme Court reversed its decisions in Aguilar v. Felton, 473 U.S. 402, 105 S. Ct. 3232, 87 L. Ed. 2d 290 (1985) and School District of the City of Grand Rapids v. Ball, 473 U.S. 373, 105 S. Ct. 3216, 87 L. Ed. 2d 267 (1985), and held that a public school teacher may teach disadvantaged students in a private school classroom if the legislation authorizing such activity contains safeguards that prevent the teacher from advancing religion.

Many states have set up programs that challenge the limits of the Establishment Clause. Voucher programs are an example of education-related legislative experimentation with the Establishment Clause. Under a voucher program, the state provides taxpayer money to parents and guardians of public school students to be used to send the students to religious or private schools. The Supreme Court, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639, 122 S.Ct. 2460, 153 L.Ed.2d 604 (2002), upheld the constitutionality of an Ohio program that provided low-income Cleveland parents tax-supported VOUCHERS worth $2,250 per pupil, which they could use to transfer a child to a participating private school of the family's choice. The Court stated that "Cleveland's pilot program permits individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious." The decision cleared the way for other states to adopt voucher programs.

School districts do not have power over sectarian private schools, but they do have authority over home schools. Home schooling is a form of education provided by parents or guardians.

Schools and school districts continually adapt their policies, rules, and regulations to keep pace with societal changes and to meet the needs of students and the community. Curricula, grades, attendance requirements, and age standards vary from district to district and even from school to school.

The federal government imposed new requirements on local school districts when it enacted the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). The act, which was proposed by President GEORGE W. BUSH, contained sweeping reforms for the U.S. public school system and was centered on four basic principles: increased accountability by school districts, increased flexibility and local control, expanded options for parents, and an emphasis on proven teaching methods. States must develop learning standards for students and must institute annual testing to ensure that the standards have been met. Schools that fail to perform up to expectations are to be held accountable. States that do not comply with the act risk the loss of federal aid. The NCLB, though only in its infancy, promised major changes for public education.

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