Gerald Bracey’s Last Testament

by Robert Pondiscio
November 9th, 2009

You had to know that if any education commenter could make himself heard from beyond the grave, it would be Gerald Bracey.  He was working on his 18th annual Report on the Condition of Public Education when he passed away last month.  It’s out today.  It focuses on three specific reform ideas:  Mayoral control of school districts; the idea that “high-quality” schools can eliminate the achievement gap; and the push for higher standards to improve the performance of public schools.  It will surprise no one familiar with Bracey’s work to learn he finds each policy prescription wanting. 

Agree with him, disagree with him, but it was impossible to ignore him.  Still is.

Can Schools Be Sued for Failure to Educate?

by Robert Pondiscio
November 9th, 2009

The ACLU is suing Florida’s governor, Board of Ed and other officials for “failing to ensure that students in Palm Beach County receive a high quality education.”   The state’s constitution requires Florida to provide a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality education.  “Palm Beach County is clearly not upholding its responsibility to provide a quality education to all of its students when so many of them are not graduating,” said the ACLU in a statement.  According to the suit, up to one-half of the county’s students do not graduate on time.

Such lawsuits are not unheard of, but I’m not aware of any successful suits where students have sued schools or teachers for educational malpractice.   A frequently cited precedent is 1976 case Peter W. vs. San Francisco Unified School District, where a high school graduate who could not read or write unsuccessfully sought damages from the school district for providing “inadequate instruction.”  According to the decision:

Unlike the activity of the highway or the marketplace, classroom methodology affords no readily acceptable standards of care, or cause, or injury. The science of pedagogy itself is fraught with different and conflicting theories of how or what a child should be taught, and any layman might–and commonly does–have his own emphatic views on the subject. The ‘injury’ claimed here is plaintiff’s inability to read and write. Substantial professional authority attests that the achievement of literacy in the schools, or its failure, are influenced by a host of factors which affect the pupil subjectively, from outside the formal teaching process, and beyond the control of its ministers. They may be physical, neurological, emotional, cultural, environmental; they may be present but not perceived, recognized but not identified.”

In short, the courts have taken a broader view of accountability than many in ed reform.  I’d love to hear from those in the legal community, however, about whether the “no excuses” mantra is enforceable as a contract–and if suits alleging failure to educate might be successful in the future.