July | August 2017

Emerging Technology Trends for State Governments

By Francisco M. Negrón Jr.
Some of the greatest decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court have arisen in the context of public schools and education. Some of those decisions, like Brown v. Board of Education, have enduring impact not only for schools, but also for the very fabric of our democratic society.
Beyond the big landmark decisions, the Supreme Court regularly hears and decides cases that involve many of the myriad other issues facing schools on a daily basis. Those issues span a broad spectrum, ranging from high-level constitutional questions to more mundane matters affecting the operational realities of school districts.
Sometimes those issues come together in a single case.
For instance, in Morse v. Frederick, the Supreme Court dealt with a constitutional question involving student freedom of speech. The case, which was notorious for the slogan “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” sprawled across a 14-foot banner unfurled by a student at a school event, resulted in a decision that upheld a public school’s ability to regulate student speech that promotes drug use.
But one aspect of the decision that is often missed in the conversation of constitutional rights and free speech is the Court’s preservation of the qualified immunity of the school principal, Deborah Morse, who was personally sued in the case. The preservation of the qualified immunity is exceedingly important not only because school officials need to be able to exercise professional discretion and not have their educational judgment chilled by the fear of lawsuits.
Because many school districts legally defend their educators and employees from suit when they are carrying out school district policy in their work, and because many school districts are self-insured, the potential loss of individual damages in some cases could represent a severe financial setback for many school districts.
In other instances, the Court takes special notice of the perspective of public schools in cases that do not involve education, but nonetheless impact the operations of school districts. Because school districts are collectively the largest public employer in the country, Court opinions involving public employment disputes weigh proportionally more heavily on school districts.
In a recent case, Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania town in a dispute premised on the federal constitutional right to petition the government. The employee in that case claimed that the town had violated his right to petition the government when it retaliated against him for filing a grievance petition. The Court rejected the claim citing the amicus brief of the National School Boards Association for the proposition that employment grievance petitions are different from petitions to the government on issues of public importance.
This ruling favored school districts as public employers because most are subject to either collective bargaining agreements or state laws that require them to entertain grievance petitions in the employment dispute resolution process.
The national school law docket is most often remembered for landmark cases, and rightly so. But on a more regular basis, the Supreme Court produces tens of decisions in any given term that impact public school districts and state agencies. The interested observer or government administrator would do well to include those lesser-known cases as part of a regular review.
—Francisco M. Negrón Jr. is the General Counsel and Associate Executive Director Legal Advocacy & Legal Services for the National School Boards Association