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.


  1. Sorry, Robert, I’m not of the legal community, so I can’t address the request of your final paragraph.

    I do have to sound off, though, on the ACLU. And, as I so love our civil liberties, it’s going to be a little hard for me to do. I simply can’t remain idle, however, when the organization acts so bafflingly inconsistently on education.

    The ACLU is, after all, the same organization who filed a lawsuit on Minnesota’s Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) for First Amendment violations, despite TiZA’s laudatory results with its poor, black, and of-limited-English-proficiency students.

    As the ACLU does work within the proper public-policy boxes to lob its various–and scattered–dissatisfactions with education, more and more it makes me wonder: might current public policy actually work against large successes in education? Does Big-E Education need fixing, or might some (most?) of the onus lie at the feet of the policies Education works within?

    Comment by Eric Kalenze — November 9, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

  2. From the NYT link:
    “With Federal desegregation cases now fading, people are looking at educational adequacy as the best hope. They are being pushed in that direction by the courts.”

    Adequacy suits are messy. Glaring deficiencies need to go before the court. This could be a civil rights case, but that can be countered by the argument that it’s not minorities being hurt–it’s all low SES pupils.

    CERD (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) would make these lawsuits easier, but the US does not allow lawsuits based on CERD.

    Isn’t this lawsuit just Florida’s own version of Abbott, DeRolph, or CFE?

    Comment by Eric — November 11, 2009 @ 2:07 am

  3. Interesting that ACLU defines a “high quality education” education as graduating rather than any particular test of what the students can do at the end of it.

    Comment by Tracy W — November 11, 2009 @ 11:03 am

  4. As text books are removed. Concrete curriculum practices have been turned over to for profit companies, that employ no educators to train teachers in their methods. Methods that change every year because of failure to educate. NCLB(no child left behind) has caused systemic bar lowering with heavy increases in interim assessments followed up be teachers being forced to teach to the test. Services are being removed from needy students. Violent Behavior problem students are grouped with learning disabled and slow learners. The system has become about the success of the educational leaders and has forgotten about the child.
    I believe that Peter W v SFUSD is from a time before NCLB, and a strong case can be made against the political and corporate aspects that control most of the schools post NCLB.

    influenced by a host of factors which affect the pupil subjectively, from outside the formal teaching process, and beyond the control of its ministers. The Host of factors has been reduced to the political and corporate aspects that control most of the schools post NCLB. They have stated the not home or economic status is the reason for failure for a student to learn. They try tho blame the teacher but the teachers are only doing what they are told to do by the educational leaders of their educational system.

    I am a NYC School Teacher and a parent of 2 NYC public school students. I wish I had the resources to use the legal system to save my children and students.

    Comment by Rod S — August 22, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

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