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Is it possible for parents of public school students to successfully sue School District to demand certain improvements in online education?

It seems that some school districts abuse their monopoly and use Covid-induced online education to drastically reduce the number of hours they teach, including "self-study" days with no instruction whatsoever. Town halls with district superintendent and board is useless: the parents' comments that must be submitted in writing are sometimes ignored and sometimes answered with provable misinformation.

Could a class action against a school district succeed? An action aimed at forcing the school district to either improve substantially the quality of education or to compensate parents forced to enroll their kids into private schools? If this is a no-go, what other means are possible to influence the school district?

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    Good question, probably not the answers you'd hope for. – ohwilleke Jan 20 at 21:37
  • Where in the US do public schools have a monopoly? Aren't private schools and home schooling allowed everywhere in the US? – Ross Ridge Jan 21 at 2:41
  • @RossRidge, if we had voucher system, with the school that is actually teaching the kid being paid via taxes - that wouldn't be a monopoly. But when the public school being paid regardless whether the kid is enrolled and the private school being paid by the parents (after taxes), that's a monopoly, IMHO. It' like your paycheck being automatically withdrawn against your will for the food you would be able to get for free at, say, designated Target, but if you buy food at, say, Whole Food, you pay with your own money, and Target gets paid anyway. – Michael Jan 21 at 22:22
  • @RossRidge, or, to put it more succinctly, monopoly is the lack of choice when PAYING the same entity, even if you have the choice of accepting the services from that entity. – Michael Jan 21 at 22:27
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    You mean like with all the other taxes you have pay even though the money is spent things you don't use? That doesn't make public schools a monopoly. – Ross Ridge Jan 21 at 22:51
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It is possible: McCleary v. Washington is an example. Ground zero was the 2012 ruling McCleary v. State, 173 Wn.2d 477, which then took 6 years of further scuffling to resolve. That opinion is full of useful legal tidbits, but the argument boils down to a constitutional obligation (art. IX) for the state to provide an education. If your state has no constitutional provision mandating that the state provide an education, you may be out of luck.

I should point out, though, that the issue reduced to funding and not content / method: that the state used to use a "local pots of gold" model rather that a "big pot of gold" model, and even then came up short of the funds required to do what they were supposed to do. The "argument" was, simply, "We can't can't agree on an affordable means of implementing this system", and subject matter or instructional methods were not debated. A lawsuit will be completely ineffective over a dispute about best methods. Since at least in Washington, school policy is set by an elected set of school officials, the only solution is to pick better individuals next time. Recall is not an option, except in the case of misfeasance or malfeasance – improper acts, not errors of judgment. But I would not totally discount the skills of a clever attorney to make the case that so-and-so is a violation of a constitutional duty, depending on what your constitution demands w.r.t. education.

The constitutional provisions of Washington vs. California are significant. In Washington,

It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.

and the Supreme court found that

The State has not complied with its article IX, section 1 duty to make ample provision for the education of all children in Washington.

Most of the education article is about the funding obligation, which is the legal point on which the Legislature was held in contempt. The California Constitution imposes a weaker duty on the legislature:

A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement.

The vast majority of the constitutional provisions in California are about electing and paying administrators, so there is little basis for arguing that a California school district has not encouraged such improvements. There is no "quality" requirement, just a desideratum to encourage improvement.

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  • Thanks. The state is California, and the district is well-funded. Does CA have the constitutional obligation? More importantly, what exactly does the constitutional obligation require: for the state/municipality to provide funds to the school district (which is being done) or for the well-funded school district to provide quality education (which IMO is not being done)? – Michael Jan 20 at 17:39
  • Well, the California constitution article IX section 1 says, "A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement." leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/… – D M Jan 20 at 21:48
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As a practical matter, class action litigation is unlikely to provide an answer fast enough for it to provide a meaningful remedy for the original litigants before the situation changes or their students age out. Litigation can be viable for a single singled out kid with a special ed need or who is persecuted for discriminatory reasons, but even then it is a highly suboptimal solution.

As user6726 accurately notes, cases like that can take a decade to get a remedy, which is O.K. for addressing long term stable systemic funding issues but not so good at addressing exigent instruction failings for your kids and those of a group of friends.

Litigation should be a last resort. Political remedies at both the district and state level, being a squeaky wheel with the right people in the district, PTA type efforts, organizing supplemental programs complementing the district program, or pursuing potentially costly alternative vote with your feet options, are all better choices in the majority of cases.

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Public schools in the US, as governmental agencies, share a measure of sovereign immunity. It is generally very hard to sue a public school or school district over the quality of its education unless there is a specific mandate in a state (o rarely) federal statute mandating particular aspects, such as the "No Child Left Behind" law. Otherwise the sole remedy is usually political, to elect a school board with different priorities.

What kinds and amounts of teaching are desirable and effective is something that school boards and school officials have wide discretion over. A suit such as is suggested in the question seems unlikely to be a winning one. But almost anything is possible in litigation.

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  • Thanks. Unfortunately, politics in California is very one-sided; it's virtually impossible to oppose the status quo. The Teachers' Union wields tremendous power, and it's not interested in teaching kids, but rather to increase benefits and compensation for the school staff at the expense of education quality. Superintendant usually runs unopposed. And I'm not sure how one gets on the school board. – Michael Jan 20 at 17:48

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