The country is three years deep into Donald Trump’s presidency, which has seen, among other changes, significant policy overhauls from the U.S. Department of Education and a right-leaning Supreme Court bench ruling on landmark cases.
With multiple lawsuits pending in federal courts, the nation’s public education landscape could change significantly in 2020.
Recent oral arguments before the Supreme Court on DACA that will affect thousands of educators, students and their families are just the tip of the iceberg. A five-year-old Virginia case over transgender students’ rights to bathrooms and other school facilities could finally be heard by the Supreme Court if it doesn't reach its end in the lower courts, and justices are set to hear a Montana case over state aid given to religious schools in January.
Here's how those cases, and more, will likely impact the future of public education:
Houston ISD vs. Texas Education Agency
Details of the case: An announcement in November by Texas education officials cited Houston ISD’s "inability to address long-standing academic deficiencies" and the elected school board's "breakdown in governance" as reasons for a state takeover just days after voters elected new school board members, who were unable to take their seats and were booted alongside the superintendent under the takeover.
In response, the Houston Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit saying the Texas Education Agency and education commissioner “seek to disenfranchise the largely minority population of HISD and prevent it from being served by its elected school board members.”
Plaintiffs are suing the state agency for violating the Texas and U. S. constitutions, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, claiming the takeover decision violated Houston residents’ voting rights based on race and national origin.
Why it’s significant: The union is calling the takeover a “power grab” and says it believes the state’s goal is to turn the district into privately operated charter schools, while the state points to the chronically failing Wheatley High School as one of the primary reasons for its decision.
The lawsuit is a last-ditch effort to save the largest school district in Texas (and one of the largest in the nation) from a takeover, which would be unprecedented in size if it proceeds.
Where it is now: The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Austin last month. Houston ISD’s request for a temporary injunction was heard on Dec. 5.
Texas American Federation of Teachers says it expects a ruling on the injunction, which would hold off the takeover if passed, by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel in the next few days. “After that, it could be a lengthy process,” Rob D’Amico, a spokesperson for the union, said.
Gavin Grimm vs. Gloucester County School Board
Details of the case: The American Civil Liberties Union and its Virginia chapter filed a lawsuit in 2015 against the Gloucester County School board after it crafted policies barring then-student Gavin Grimm, a transgender male, from accessing bathrooms aligned with his gender identity.
The lawsuit claims the bathroom policy is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment and that it violates Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in schools.
Why it’s significant: The Supreme Court was set to hear Grimm's case in early 2017, but it was sent back to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to be reconsidered after the Trump administration rescinded the Department of Education’s Obama-era guidance protecting transgender students’ rights under Title IX.
The guidance formerly allowed transgender students to access bathrooms and facilities of their choice and was used by advocates to push for policy changes.
With an increasing number of similar lawsuits pending in or already decided by the lower courts, and this case previously on the Supreme Court’s radar, the decision could either build on the growing consensus that transgender students must be accommodated by schools, or it could create a divide that leads to an eventual Supreme Court decision addressing the wider debate.
Where it is now: The case is back in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals after the school board filed an appeal in August in response to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia’s decision that the school violated Grimm’s rights under Title IX and the 14th Amendment.
Joshua Block, the lead American Civil Liberties Union attorney on the case, said the organization is again in the process of preparing oral arguments.
Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue
Details of the case: In 2015, the Montana legislature passed a bill offering tax credits for those who donate to private school scholarships. The Montana Department of Revenue then limited the use of the scholarship funds for only non-religious private schools, excluding religious schools as recipients, under the argument that the state’s Blaine Amendment prohibits funding religious schools with state money.
On the other side, the petitioners argue by excluding religious schools from the tax credit program, the state is in violation of the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which ruled religious groups cannot be prevented from accessing widely available public funds (which can come in the form of grants or, in this case, scholarships) just because of religious affiliation.
Why it’s significant: The arguments of the case strike at the heart of the debate over separation of church and state, as well as the debate over the use of public funds for private and religious schools. It also highlights the divide between school choice and private school advocates who claim religious discrimination, on one hand, and traditional public school supporters who seek to keep public money in public schools on the other.
Where it is now: After the Montana Supreme Court struck down the scholarship program on the grounds it violated laws on giving state aid to religious organizations, parents in the case appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. Oral arguments are set for Jan. 22.
Trump v. NAACP, Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, McAleelan v. Vidal
Details of the cases: This trio of cases before the Supreme Court seeks to determine whether the Trump administration properly ended the DACA program when it repealed former President Barack Obama’s executive order. The question is not whether the DACA program should continue, but rather whether the administration acted improperly when it failed to adequately explain why it decided to end the program, as the executive branch is required to provide a reason when it seeks to make a policy change.
Why it’s significant: If the Supreme Court decides the administration lawfully ended the DACA program, the immigration statuses of thousands of educators, students and their families will be on the line.
Education remains one of the most common professions in which DACA recipients work, and approximately 228,000 children age 15 and younger were unauthorized immigrants potentially eligible for the DACA program provided they stayed in school in 2016.
Where it is now: After lower courts determined Trump’s explanation for ending the program was inadequate, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments over the case in November. A final decision is expected anytime between January and June.
Right to education lawsuits
Details of the cases: Multiple cases bring into question the nature of the right to education provided by state constitutions.
Six Pennsylvania school districts are suing the state's department of education, school board and governor, claiming the state underfunded low-income districts and exacerbated "gross disparities" in education. In Rhode Island, Cook v. Raimondo asks the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether all public schools have a right to an education that prepares students to be active in civic life.
And in a literacy lawsuit in Detroit, students from low-performing public schools are suing the state — namely, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose name has replaced former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's in the suit originally filed in 2016, and the Michigan Department of Education — for failing to provide access to and conditions necessary for literacy.
Why it's significant: The underfunding of schools and inequity in the distribution of state funds for public education are constant battles for many educators. These cases could require states to improve spending models and rethink resource distribution if judges find that failing to provide adequate resources, conditions and/or curricula prevents students from accessing their right to an education.
Where it is now: After the Supreme Court sent William Penn School District et al. v. Pa. Department of Education et al. back to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, the case will head to trial in the fall. Rhode Island's case will be appealed in the 1st Circuit, and the Michigan case is before the 6th Circuit Court. If one appellate court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, but not the other, the U.S. Supreme Court would be more likely to hear the case.