Iowa Supreme Court on Education

Iowa Supreme Court decided King et al. v. State of Iowa on April 20, 2012.  The 4-3 decision yielded a majority opinion, two concurring opinions, and two dissenting opinions, totaling 163 pages.

The plaintiffs in this case essentially alleged that the State of Iowa, the Governor of Iowa, the Iowa Department of Education, and the Director of the Iowa Department of Education had failed to exercise sufficient centralized control over public education.  See pages 4-9 of the opinion for a statement of the facts and procedural background.  A taste from pages 8-9:

It also requests an order of mandamus or permanent injunction directing the defendants to (1) undertake all suitable means to provide an effective education; (2) develop educational content and performance standards for all Iowa school districts which detail required course offerings, instructor capabilities, and testing requirements, among other things; (3) improve or develop state assessments; (4) develop and enforce professional development programs; (5) implement a career ladder to enhance recruitment and retention of quality teachers; (6) enforce the standards by identifying and enforcing consequences for failure to follow and implement such standards; (7) “develop educational management and governance arrangements to mitigate all procedural and structural impediments to an effective education”; and (8) “[c]lose the achievement gaps among the school[] districts in Iowa.”

It is funny to read in the plaintiffs’ allegations (filed in 2008) in 2012 after the big push this legislative session for an education reform plan recently described by Todd Dorman as “Glass’ vision of a centralized, top-down, core standards-driven, test-till-they-drop reform effort.”

The Court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ petition, holding “that plaintiffs’ specific challenges to the educational policies of this state are properly directed to the plaintiffs’ elected representatives, rather than the courts.”  [page 3]

For analysis of the case, see coverage at On Brief here, here, here, and here.

After the jump, I would just like to highlight some portions of the opinion touching on the nature of a basic education, local control, and due process.  I would note that Justice Appel’s dissent, in particular (beginning on page 86), provides an extensive description and discussion of historical roles of national and state governments in educating children, a history of public education in Iowa, an overview of provisions of the Iowa Constitution related to education, and an overview of important education cases.

What Constitutes a Basic Education

Chief Justice Cady (pages 62-63):

In this case, the allegations of the petition, even if true, could not establish that students in Iowa today are being denied a basic or minimally adequate education, wherever that elusive standard might land. The plaintiffs have not made a single allegation that could establish they have been deprived of the basic ability to read, write, or communicate, and they have not alleged they have been deprived of their ability to gain an understanding of mathematics, science, economics, government, computer-based technology, or other vital components of a basic education. While the allegations in the petition are detailed and thoughtful, they simply do not show Iowa students are being deprived of an opportunity for an adequate education. For example, the disparities alleged to exist between school districts across Iowa may show slightly different education experiences and outcomes, but those different outcomes do not establish a deprivation of basic education.

Chief Justice Cady (page 64):

The petition does contain some statements generally indicting the public education system. For example, the petition states that “[m]any Iowa students are not prepared to enter the workforce or postsecondary education without additional training or remediation when they graduate from high school.” The petition also alleges the educational and accreditation standards of this state “do not ensure that all students” will be able to meet or exceed the future demands of society, be prepared for responsible citizenship, and be prepared for further learning and productive employment in the global economy. The petition also generally declares, “[A]n ineffective education will persist for school children throughout their lifetimes, affecting the rate and extent of their ability to be a responsible citizen, their ability to learn further, and their ability to achieve productive employment in a global economy.”

To the extent such claims are actually allegations of a petition, as opposed to hortatory calls to action, they relate to the level of a basic or adequate education. Wherever a basic or adequate education might land within the framework of our constitution, assuming the existence of a right to education, that landing point certainly would not guarantee that “all students” would be able to meet the broad demands of the world in the future. Nor would the right guarantee students would never need to take a remedial course to enter the workforce or postsecondary education.

Justice Appel (page 143):

But, if there is a requirement that the State provide a public education for children and youth through “Common schools throughout the State,” it certainly must be implied that the education provided in the common schools must be a meaningful education and not just some empty formalism. There must be some substance to the mandatory duty, some concrete reality, some meat on the bones. Just as the “right to counsel” under the Federal and State Constitutions means the right to “effective” assistance of counsel, McMann v. Richardson, 397 U.S. 759, 771 & n.14, 90 S. Ct. 1441, 1449 & n.14, 25 L. Ed. 2d 763, 773 & n.14 (1970), the duty of the state to provide common schools throughout the state requires that the education in the schools meet minimum standards of adequacy.

Justice Appel (pages 148-149):

By limiting heightened scrutiny to the deprivation of an adequate or basic education and by employing a lesser degree of scrutiny to legislative classifications that do not impinge on an adequate education, state officials would have ample breathing room for their important policy-making role, yet still require that the state provide all students with a meaningful educational opportunity.

The next question which arises is the content of a basic or adequate education that triggers heightened scrutiny. Based on the reasoning of the adequacy cases cited above, I conclude that a basic or adequate education must be sufficient to allow a person to participate meaningfully in democracy through the right to vote, the right to petition government, and jury duty, and to have meaningful prospects of enjoying “life, liberty, and property.” In order to achieve these ends, education must be sufficient to allow an individual a meaningful opportunity to participate in economic life in the postmodern world. See Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc., 801 N.E.2d at 330–32; Hoke Cnty. Bd. of Educ. v. State, 599 S.E.2d 365, 379–81 (N.C. 2004); Abbeville Cnty. Sch. Dist., 515 S.E.2d at 540; Rose, 790 S.W.2d at 211–13. In order to satisfy these demands, I would adopt a variant of the factors in Rose and other adequacy cases: An educational program must, among other things, include effectively teaching the ability to read and write, to communicate effectively, to perform in mathematical computations, to have exposure to scientific principles, to have a basic understanding of economics and government, and to learn how to use computer-based technology that is so indispensible in the postmodern world. An education program need not guarantee results to meet the constitutional test, but it must provide a meaningful educational opportunity to participate in the political, social, and economic life.

I would not, however, adopt the approach of the Arkansas Supreme Court in Lake View. While the adoption of standards, systems of monitoring, and systems of accountability might help ensure compliance with the substantive constitutional requirements outlined in this opinion, I would not mandate the precise manner in which the State performs its constitutional obligation. I would decline to enter the fray of educational philosophy other than as required to ensure that children have a reasonable opportunity to a basic education and that all other material differences in educational opportunity be justified by a rational basis as described below.

Local Control

Justice Mansfield (page 36):  In Exira “we expressed the view that debates over whether “centralization of schools improves the quality of education” belonged in the legislature and not the courts. “

Justice Mansfield (pages 45-46):

We can conceive of a rational basis for the set of circumstances described by plaintiffs. The Iowa legislature may have decided that local school board autonomy is preferable in certain instances to state mandates. The legislature may also have concluded that it is more equitable to provide an equal or roughly equal amount of resources to each state school district, on a per capita basis, and then give those school districts the primary responsibility for determining how that money will be spent. . . .  The legislature may also have decided that it is important to preserve school districts in rural areas, even though the smaller size of those districts may not allow them to offer the same kinds of programs as larger districts. The legislature may have determined that time spent on standardized testing of students—and preparation for such tests—detracts from time spent in other areas of learning. Additionally, the legislature may have decided that school districts in Iowa are aware of their students’ math and reading proficiency rates, but have many other pressing concerns, and that it would be best to defer to the judgment of local administrators regarding the areas that require the most attention.

Local control, equity in per-pupil funding, maintenance of existing rural school districts, and conservation of scarce classroom time and resources are all legitimate governmental interests. As claimed interests, they are “realistically conceivable.” Miller v. Boone Cnty. Hosp., 394 N.W.2d 776, 779 (Iowa 1986). Furthermore, the policies decried by the plaintiffs are at least rationally connected to these goals. While acknowledging the undeniable importance of education, our court has previously characterized it as an area where there is no true consensus and where needs change over time. Thus, we have said that “education is defined as a broad and comprehensive term with a variable and indefinite meaning.” In re Petty, 241 Iowa 506, 511, 41 N.W.2d 672, 675 (1950).

Justice Appel (pages 155-157):

The suggestion that the incantation of the phrase “local control” is sufficient to decide this case at this stage as a matter of law cannot stand scrutiny. When an allegation of a violation of our privileges and immunities clause in the field of education is alleged, we should turn a cocked ear, not a blind eye. When local control is asserted as a justification for differences in educational quality, we should consider whether local educational leaders are, in fact, making local choices entitled to deference, or whether they are forced into Hobson’s choices because of an educational structure that prevents them from delivering a quality education. The concept was well expressed by one observer, who noted that “[e]verywhere, local autonomy is compromised by centralized authority. . . . Practically, the rhetoric of local autonomy is difficult to take seriously given overwhelming evidence of the fiscal, political, and judicial domination of local governments by higher tiers of the state.” Gordon L. Clark, Judges and the Cities: Interpreting Local Autonomy 113–14 (1985) (citation omitted). In other words, the question we should ask is this: Is local control really at work, or is it a euphemism masking inequalities in the ability of school districts to provide educational opportunities to its students? See Lujan, 649 P.2d at 1040 (Lohr, J., dissenting).

Justice Mansfield’s opinion employs the label “local control” without analysis of exactly what that means. In San Antonio, local control was favored because it encouraged citizen participation in decision making, permitted the structuring of school programs to fit local needs, and encouraged “experimentation, innovation, and a healthy competition for educational excellence.” San Antonio, 411 U.S. at 50, 93 S. Ct. at 1305, 36 L. Ed. 2d at 52–53. Should we declare, as a matter of law, that the distinctions between the various school districts in this case were the result of these factors? Is it not possible that, in this case, the state regulatory framework in actuality deprives local school boards of local control in the sense that they do not have the practical ability to make considered policy choices? Would the responsible school officials in the districts where the plaintiffs reside claim that the alleged dramatic differences in teacher experience, course loads per teacher, and curriculum offerings were the result of a local, discretionary choice or would they cite systemic limitations? Does the way education is structured in Iowa promote local control or restrict it? We will, of course, never know the answer to these questions in light of the summary dismissal of the case without the development of a factual record.

Due Process

Justice Appel (pages 157-158):

I have no doubt that there is a potential due process claim in light of the compulsory nature of school attending. We said as much in Exira. The notion is uncontroversial that where a liberty interest is impaired—and surely it is impaired by mandatory school attendance—the deprivation of liberty must be rationally related to a legitimate state objective. Youngberg, 457 U.S. at 324, 102 S. Ct. at 2462, 73 L. Ed. 2d at 42–43. There is also no doubt that education is a legitimate state objective. The question under due process is whether the education received by the person whose liberty is impaired is rationally related to the state’s legitimate interest in educating citizens. Any application of the due process clause, however, would give the state a wide range of permissible action in providing education to its charges. There is no due process right to a specific kind of education, but only a sufficiently reasonable educational effort to justify the intrusion on the liberty interest.