5 Recent Changes to Education Law

Education law is constantly changing to reflect changes in technology and the way children learn. While these new laws are set to help children acquire a better education, legal guidelines related to education can make paperwork and compliance a difficult task for public school administrators. Here are the five recent changes in education law that are sure to impact schools the most.

Teacher Evaluations

Federal programs that provide funding to schools require states to pass laws related to mandatory teacher evaluations in order to qualify. These evaluations require school administrators to observe each teacher during a class period in order to determine whether the teacher is properly adhering to academic guidelines set forth by the federal government. Recommendations are made based on these observations, and it is possible for a teacher to be terminated due to a poor evaluation.

Collective Bargaining Bans

While bans on collective bargaining for educators have only been passed in five states, teachers working in states that have banned the negotiating tool are concerned about the impact that these bans will have on their work environment.

Education Vouchers

Public schools may see a slight drop in attendance as states continue to pass legislation that allows low-income families to be granted vouchers to use at private schools. Each state that offers vouchers to students sets forth the guidelines that must be met in order for a student to be considered eligible. Income level is usually the determining factor for voucher eligibility.

Termination Order

There have been regulations in place in the public school system that require administrators to fire teachers who have been on staff the shortest amount of time when budget cuts must be made. However, states including Illinois have done away with these regulations. It has now been recognized that seniority in the classroom does not necessary mean quality.

Merit Pay

States that have enacted a merit pay system have done so in an attempt to increase the quality of education across the board. Teachers working in these states are paid according to their students’ performance. Low test grades and high rates of student absence will lead to lower pay for teachers, and states that use this method of paying teachers hope that teachers will be motivated to perform.

Recent changes in education law impact the lives of teachers, students and administrators working in the public school system. It is important for administrators to consult an attorney to ensure compliance with these laws.

How the Brown Act Affects Parents

Parents who live in the state of California should be aware of their rights under the Brown Act (the “Act”). The Act, which was passed by the California Legislature, guarantees the right of the public to attend and participate in meetings that are held by local legislative bodies. School boards and other educational bodies fall into this category, so they must therefore allow the public to attend and participate in their meetings. The Brown Act is located in sections 54950 to 54962 of the California Government Code, and it is often referred to as the “open meeting act.”

Why does this matter to parents? The Act ensures their right to take an active part in the education of their children. While participation in organizations like the PTA can help keep parents informed of events at their children’s schools, attending meetings that are held by local school boards and other organizations allows them to stay abreast of important changes that can affect their children’s education in the district in which they reside. Without the passage of the Brown Act, school boards and other bodies could hold undisclosed, impromptu, informal meetings thereby leaving parents and the general public out of the loop.

Secret meetings are problematic for a number of reasons. Most notably, they may be conducted to avoid public scrutiny regarding controversial or unpopular topics. For parents who like to stay informed about developments in local public education, this poses many serious problems.

Some argue that it is nearly impossible to enforce the Brown Act. Violation of the Act is considered a misdemeanor, but how are secret meetings supposed to be detected? Proponents argue that the mere threat of being charged with a misdemeanor is enough to prompt most legislative bodies to obey the law.

Under the terms of the Brown Act, at least 72 hours of advance notice must be given for a regular meeting, and the agenda must be posted publicly. Minutes must be taken and made available to the public. At least 24 hours of advance notice must be given for a special meeting, and the agenda must be posted at least 24 hours ahead of time. Only items listed on the agenda may be discussed. In the case of an emergency meeting, one-hour notice must be provided by phone to local media outlets, and only items that are listed on the disclosed agenda may be discussed.

Closed sessions are permitted for cases involving pending litigation, personnel matters, labor negotiations, public security and real estate negotiations. They may also be conducted for matters regarding student discipline, but the body must vote and take subsequent action publicly.

By understanding the Brown Act, parents can protect their right to take active, informed roles in their childrens’ educations.

Let’s bring the Brown Act into the 21st century

Both lauded and maligned—and perhaps occasionally violated—the Brown Act has been an integral part of California politics for over half a century. The Ralph M. Brown Act, often referred to as California’s “open meetings law,” was first passed in 1953 to ensure that work of publicly elected bodies was done openly and transparently. It also remains one of the most confusing pieces of legislation, particularly for “amateur” politicians such as school board members, because of its non-obvious provisions and multiple exemptions.

The California School Boards Association’s annual conference has multiple sessions every year devoted to explaining the Brown Act to school board members (and CSBA publishes a 63-page book to explain the law), but even attorneys specializing in the area disagree on the application of some of the law’s provisions, particularly in the modern era.

The intent of the law is clear and largely not in dispute: Public bodies should not deliberate behind closed doors but rather allow the public to witness their “thinking process” in how they come to decisions. The law centers on provisions stating that a majority of the members of any elected body must deliberate in public with an agenda that is posted and available publicly in advance of such meeting. There are many specific requirements and some exceptions (including for matters such as litigation, collective bargaining, and student discipline), but practically it means that I, as a member of a five-person school board, cannot meet with two or more colleagues behind closed doors to discuss policy. This would, by its nature, hide the deliberations of a majority of a body which has the power to make public policy.

The act also prohibits “serial meetings,” deliberations that happen asynchronously by person A talking to person B, then B talking to C, etc., or A becoming a “hub” by separately talking to B and C. One of the more confusing provisions (particularly for members of the public) prohibits elected officials from discussing in a public meeting items not included on the posted agenda. For example, members of the public may comment during a meeting on any topic that wasn’t on that meeting’s agenda, but a board member cannot substantively respond to that comment—this would effectively create a “back-door” way to add a topic to a public meeting without giving notice to the community that such topic would be discussed.

The main problem with the Brown Act is that it was created in an era where communication vehicles were much more limited and it was easier to hide from the public eye. In 1953, only about half of U.S. households owned a television (and only a bit more than that even owned a phone), therefore as a practical matter the only way the public could interact with their elected officials was through these periodic in-person meetings. Of course, the world has changed, and the advancement of communication technology has allowed us to craft policy leveraging these communication vehicles while actually advancing the spirit of the Brown Act.

The essence of the Brown Act is to ensure transparency and openness but also update it to recognize that school boards (and other elected bodies) have the opportunity to leverage multiple communications tools, including social media, in a very powerful way that would actually increase community involvement and transparency. Most Brown Act attorneys advise school boards that it is not allowed for a school board member to phone in to a board meeting (while they are traveling, say) unless they post the agenda where they are located and make it accessible to the public.