Education Week - July 19, 2017 - 20
The U.S. Supreme Court had one of
its most significant terms for K-12
education in several years, even
after it decided to send back to a
lower court a case it had decided
to hear about transgender rights in
education, Gloucester County School
District v. G.G. Here are the cases
with implications for education that
the court did decide:
Illustrations by Art Lien
K-12 and the
U.S. Supreme Court:
The U.S. Supreme
for the last day of
opinions on June 26.
Government Aid to Religious Education
In a case with implications for the
costs of cheerleader uniforms as well
as for copyright in education more
generally, the justices ruled 6-2 in
Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands that
the leading provider of cheerleader
uniforms could copyright some uniform
designs to stave off competitors. One
of those competitors had challenged
the copyrights, saying the market
leader's practices drove up the prices
of uniforms for schools and families.
And the American Library Association
had filed a brief arguing that moreexpansive copyright protection would
be more difficult and expensive for
In a case closely watched by advocates on different sides of the school
choice debate, the court ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia,
Mo. v. Comer that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution's freeexercise-of-religion clause when it denied a church a grant to use shredded
scrap-tire material to improve its preschool playground. The case was always
about much more than recycled tires and church playgrounds, as religiousschool-voucher advocates hoped the court might use it to cast aside state
constitutional provisions limiting aid to religion. Chief Justice John G. Roberts
Jr. wrote a much narrower opinion, though a majority of justices did not
endorse a footnote aimed at limiting the decision to "express discrimination
based on religious identity" and not "religious uses of funding." For that and
other reasons, voucher proponents were heartened by the decision.
In National Labor Relations Board
v. SW General Inc., the justices ruled
that the Federal Vacancies Reform
Act of 1998 bars a person who has
been nominated to fill a vacant
position requiring a presidential
appointment and Senate confirmation
from performing the duties of that
office in an acting capacity. Republican
and Democratic presidential
administrations had been skirting
the law during the past 20 years, and
the court's decision put a crimp in
President Donald Trump's personnel
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. delivers the majority opinion in the
Trinity Lutheran case.
In Advocate Health Care v. Stapleton, the court ruled 8-0 that a retirement plan maintained
by a "principal-purpose organization" such as a religious hospital or school qualifies as a
"church plan" under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, regardless of who
established it. The decision eased fears of schools and other church entities that they would
have to follow the same recordkeeping and procedural requirements for their "church plans"
as other plans must under ERISA.
Lisa S. Blatt argues before the court on
behalf of religious hospitals.
In Packingham v. North Carolina, the court held that social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn deserve First
Amendment protection, and that a North Carolina statute that barred people on the state's sex offender registry from accessing most
commercial social networking sites ran afoul of the free-speech clause.
In Matal v. Tam, the justices reiterated that even speech that is offensive or disparaging to certain individuals and groups is protected
by the First Amendment. The case stemmed from an Asian-American dance-rock band's unsuccessful efforts to trademark its name-The
Slants-which the band intends as a way to reclaim an ethnic slur. The court held that a provision of the Lanham Act of 1947 that bars
disparagement of persons was inconsistent with the free-speech clause.
In a landmark decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the court unanimously expanded
the scope of students' rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The case focused on the
definition of just how much-or how little-schools must do in setting up an education program for a student
with a disability. The high court rejected a standard adopted by a federal appeals court that schools need
only provide an education program that is "merely more than de minimis." Instead, the IDEA requires an
educational program "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the
child's circumstances." For a child in special education in a regular classroom, an individualized education
program, or IEP, should be reasonably calculated "to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance
from grade to grade," the court said.
In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools-a case that involved a child's use of a service dog at school-the
court held that a student or family suing a school district over a disability-related issue doesn't always have
to exhaust all the procedures under the IDEA before going to court. Instead, it can go ahead when the lawsuit
centers on a violation of another federal disabilities law, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, rather than
on the special education law's core guarantee of a "free, appropriate public education."
20 | EDUCATION WEEK | July 19, 2017 | www.edweek.org
Ehlena Fry, second from right, sits with her parents and brother as the court hears
arguments involving her use of a service dog at school.