Education is a hallmark of civic life in America, so it’s no surprise that it’s been at the center of many landmark controversies over the years. Here are 10 Supreme Court cases related to education that impacted both constitutional law and the public school experience.
10. Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Arguably the most well-known ruling of the 20th century, Brown overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and established that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The Warren Court’s unanimous decision explained that the separate-but-equal doctrine violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and ordered an end to legally mandated race-segregated schools. While the Brown decision marked only the beginning of a prolonged struggle to achieve actual integration, its impact cannot be understated.
This pair of cases shaped the modern understanding of how the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment constrains prayer in public schools. In Engel, the Court struck down a New York State rule that allowed public schools to hold a short, nondenominational prayer at the beginning of the school day. The Court decided that these prayers amounted to an “official stamp of approval” upon one particular kind of prayer and religious service, and said that, since teachers are agents of the federal government, the scheme violated the Establishment Clause.
The reasoning in Engel was also applied in Schempp, in which the Court struck down a Pennsylvania policy that required all students to read 10 Bible verses and say the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each day. While a student could get an exemption with a parent’s note, the Warren Court decided that this still amounted to an unconstitutional government endorsement of a particular religious tradition.
7. Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)
This case adjudicated a different sort of Establishment Clause challenge, where the controversy dealt with a statute providing financial support for teacher salaries and textbooks in parochial schools. The Burger Court unanimously decided that this financial aid scheme violated the Establishment Clause and delineated the governing precedent for Establishment Clause cases known as the Lemon test. Under Lemon, statutes (1) must have a secular legislative purpose; (2) must have primary effects that neither inhibit nor advance religion; and (3) cannot foster an “excessive government entanglement with religion.” The Court held that this scheme violated the third prong of the Lemon test.
6. Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)
Among the litany of public school cases from the Warren and Burger eras is the landmark Free Exercise Clause decision in Yoder. Wisconsin mandated that all children attend public school until age 16, but Jonas Yoder, a devoutly religious Amish man, refused to send his children to school past eighth grade. He argued that his children didn’t need to be in school that long to lead a fulfilling Amish life of farming and agricultural work, and that keeping his children in school for such a length of time would corrupt their faith. The Court unanimously agreed, saying that the values of public school were in “sharp conflict with the fundamental mode of life mandated by the Amish religion.” It carved out an exception for Yoder and others similarly situated.
Like most U.S. public schools, the San Antonio Independent School District in Texas was funded in part by local property taxes. The District sued the state on behalf of the students in its district, arguing that since property taxes were relatively low in the area, students at the public schools were being underserved due to the lack of funding compared to wealthier districts. They argued that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment mandates equal funding among school districts, but the Court ultimately rejected their claim. It held that there is no fundamental right to education guaranteed in the Constitution, and that the Equal Protection Clause doesn’t require exact “equality or precisely equal advantages” among school districts.
4. Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)
At the height of the Vietnam War, students in the Des Moines Independent Community School District in Iowa wore black armbands to school as an expression of their dissatisfaction with U.S. foreign policy. The district passed a rule prohibiting the armbands as part of a larger dress code, and students challenged the ban as a violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The Court agreed with the students and struck down the ban, saying that the school has to prove that the conduct or speech “materially and substantially interferes” with school operations in order to justify the ban. This case is notable for its impact on First Amendment jurisprudence regarding distinctions between conduct and speech, as well as for its extension of free speech protections to students.
3. New Jersey v. TLO (1985)
After a student (“TLO”) was caught smoking cigarettes in school, she was confronted by the school’s vice principal, who forced the student to hand over her purse. The vice principal then searched her purse, found drug paraphernalia and called the police; the student was eventually charged with multiple crimes and expelled from the school. Her lawyer argued that the evidence should not have been admissible in court because it violated the student’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court decided that the Fourth Amendment does constrain the actions of school officials, and that students have a legitimate expectation of privacy when in school. Yet TLO’s sentence was ultimately upheld because the particular search in question was found to be “reasonable.”
2. United States v. Lopez (1995)
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which prohibited the possession of firearms in designated school zones. Lopez, a 12th-grade student at a Texas high school, was caught carrying a gun at his school and was charged under the statute. He challenged his conviction and the Gun-Free School Zones Act, saying that Congress did not have the constitutional authority to ban guns in school zones. In one of the narrowest readings of the Commerce Clause since the Lochner era, the Court struck down the law and ruled that Congress had exceeded its authority. They explained that the possession of a gun does not have a substantial effect on interstate commerce, and that these sorts of regulations could only be passed by state governments.
In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger that race-based classifications, as used in affirmative-action policies, must be “narrowly tailored” to a “compelling government interest,” like diversity. In light of this, the Seattle School District established a tiebreaker scheme for admission to competitive public schools in the district, in which racial diversity played a role in the ultimate decision. The policy was challenged, and the Supreme Court was tasked with deciding if the Equal Protection Clause had any bearing on the case. It determined that its earlier decisions for college affirmative action do not apply to public schools and that racial diversity is not a compelling government interest for public school admission. Furthermore, they held that the denial of admission to a public school because of a student’s race in the interest of achieving racial diversity is unconstitutional.
BONUS: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (Pending)
The Court made the decision to hear this case in June, and will hear oral arguments this term. Friedrichs is a First Amendment challenge to the practices of public unions. The Court will determine whether requiring teachers to pay for union activities that are not explicitly political speech violates the First Amendment. While the Court has previously held such “fair share” fees to be constitutional, some commentators think that the Roberts Court may be willing to reverse the precedent. If they rule that the scheme is permissible, the Court must also decide whether an opt-out system for political activities is constitutional.
Jonathan Stahl is an intern at the National Constitution Center. He is also a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in politics, philosophy and economics.