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FindLaw Goes Back to School: 5 Legal Issues to Learn About

By Steven Tanner on August 20, 2013 4:03 PM

It's fair to say that most of us have a love/hate relationship with school. Students love summer break, but may be just as excited to get back to school and see their friends -- even if they're kicking and screaming all the way to the bus stop. Parents get to breathe a sigh of relief, but also worry about what might happen to their child during the school day.

The start of the school year also raises a slew of legal issues, from the constitutional rights of students to the regulation of homeschooling and charter schools.

So sit up straight, put your phones away, and pay attention. Today we're covering a few key basics of education law, namely:

1. School Safety.

Way too many tragic events at public schools and universities have prompted administrators to enact tougher school safety measures, balanced against the rights of students and the educational goals of schools (see FindLaw's section on Weapons at School to learn more).

Also, most schools are adopting tougher rules against bullying and cyberbullying in particular, which has been blamed as the catalyst for numerous armed assaults in schools. Other safety concerns include the use of prescription medications and school liability for slip-and-fall accidents.

2. Competency Testing.

Look, no one likes taking standardized tests in school. But their intended purpose, to gauge the quality of instruction and/or student competency, at least makes sense.

The No Child Left Behind Act is just one of several laws on this subject, but it's not without its share of criticism. In fact, President Obama made some major changes to its provisions in 2010. Curious about what's in store for your child? Check out our state-specific guide to competency testing to learn more.

3. Curriculum Standards.

Depending on where you live, the textbooks and subject-matter requirements of your child's school are determined by an often-painstaking (and sometimes adversarial) process of setting curriculum standards.

While the U.S. government sets voluntary curriculum standards and the Constitution prohibits ideological bias in public schools, what your child actually learns in the classroom is determined on a state-by-state basis, with a fair amount of teacher discretion. When teachers hang religious banners in the classroom or teach ideology instead of facts, for example, lawsuits often follow.

4. Alternatives to Public Education.

While education is compulsory for virtually all school-age children, most states are very accommodating to alternatives to traditional public schooling. For example, some students fare better in private or parochial schools, while others thrive in charter schools.

Students with special needs often have the option of attending a special education program, which is regulated at the state level. And if you choose to homeschool your child, keep in mind that each state has its own way of regulating homeschools to ensure an adequate education.

5. Teachers' Rights.

Even if you're not a teacher, it may be helpful to understand how the law protects their rights and interests.

For instance, public school teachers have a certain amount of academic and expressive freedom, as long as they don't violate the Constitution or the rights of students (or other staff members). Additionally, most public school teachers belong to unions and collectively bargain with school districts for compensation, benefits, and working conditions.

Ready or not, the new school year is upon us. Knowing how the law affects education can provide greater insight in general. And remember, laws and regulations frequently change, so keep coming back to for updates.

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