Every state has a public school system to provide free education to every child. Public schools are government-run schools regulated by federal, state and local law. However, with a free education often come numerous legal issues that parents should consider when sending their children to public schools.
Public School Governance
Although federal and state laws affect a public school’s operations and responsibilities, most of the major decisions affecting public education are made at the local level. Each state divides its many public schools into local districts that could be as large as an entire county or as localized as a portion of a city. Each district is governed by a school board made up of elected leaders charged with the decision-making responsibilities for the district. Each school district has a superintendent, who is responsible for implementing the school board’s decisions and controls the day-to-day operations of the district. A principal controls the day-to-day operations of an individual school within the district, and the principal usually reports to the superintendent.
Public schools get their funding from a variety of sources. Federal laws passed by Congress may provide funding to schools across the country. State legislatures also allocate funding to schools each year through the state’s annual budget process. Local districts in many states can propose local taxes to provide additional funding for that particular school district. Finally, corporations, public interest groups, and parents may provide grants or donations to help fund school activities or renovations.
Attendance Requirements at Public Schools
Attendance requirements vary from state to state, but children generally must attend some form of schooling from age 6 to age 16. Every state allows some form of homeschooling or private school attendance in lieu of public school attendance.
Parents or guardians are usually held legally responsible for ensuring that their children attend school, and truancy laws may allow authorities to arrest children who habitually skip school.
Public School Curriculum Requirements
Curricula at public schools are usually regulated by the state, although some federal laws, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, also may affect what public schools are required to teach. States often use high school graduation requirements to regulate school curricula by requiring students to take a specified number of courses in certain subjects. Public universities and colleges, however, may have different admission requirements, so depending on the state, completing the high school graduation requirements may not guarantee that an individual student is eligible to enroll in college.
Special Education Requirements
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the primary law regulating special education in public schools. IDEA requires states that accept federal funding to provide special education services to children with the following impairments:
- Intellectual disability
- Hearing, speech or vision impairment
- Serious emotional disturbance
- Orthopedic impairment
- Traumatic brain injury
- Other health impairment or specific learning disability
Merely falling within one of these categories does not automatically guarantee the right to special education services. The child must also need special services in order to learn. Students with other disabilities may be able to request a special accommodation under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if they do not meet IDEA’s requirements.
If a school deems that a student does not meet IDEA’s criteria for special education services, parents may be able to appeal and even file a lawsuit to demand special education services.
Rights of Public School Parents
Although some courts have ruled that parents have little right to control what their children are taught in public schools, all states allow some form of parental control. For example, many states allow parents to opt their children out of learning certain subjects, such as sex education. Some states also allow for alternative assignments if a parent objects to his or her child completing a specific assignment, such as reading an assigned book.
Rights of Public School Students
Children generally have nearly all of the same constitutional rights as adults, but in a public school setting, children’s rights may be limited in order to prevent disruption of the education process. Freedom of speech and due process are two examples of these limitations.
Although students have free speech rights at public schools, school officials may ban speech that will disrupt the learning environment. Additionally, school officials have the right to censor student publications that are part of official classes.
Students’ due process rights are also modified for the public school setting. Most school districts have policies outlining a student’s due process rights during disciplinary hearings, such as those leading to suspension or expulsion. Most school districts require the parents to be notified, and students often have the right to hire an attorney. School officials investigating on-campus offenses may also search a student’s belongings, as long as the search is reasonable and related to the investigation of an actual offense.
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If you or your child is facing a legal issue at a public school, contact an education lawyer now to explore your legal options.
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