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Educators, Policymakers and Journalists Gather for Second Annual School Law Institute

"We encounter legal issues everyday and sometimes we don't even know that they're legal issues. For school practitioners, the School Law Institute is a week-long immersion in 'got to have' information and insights with world class legal and educational scholars," commented Dr. Marjorie Parsons, an Assistant Superintendent from Grosse Pointe, Michigan. The 76 other participants at the Second Annual School Law Institute shared similar reasons and interests in learning the law.

Attendance at the five-day conference included superintendents, principals, teachers, policymakers, lawyers, and journalists from across the nation. Jay Heubert, Associate Professor of Education and Adjunct Professor of Law, established the Institute at Teachers College in 1998. The Institute was designed to examine selected issues concerning public and private elementary and secondary schools.

At the opening session, Heubert established the week's objectives "to explore evolving legal standards; to examine the educational, political, ethical, and financial questions that legal issues often raise; to consider ways of using law creatively to prevent litigation and advance educational objectives, and finally - to have fun."

The blend of legal doctrines and everyday application was critical for each instructor to communicate. Rhoda Schneider, the Institute's co-chair, brought her experiences and knowledge as the General Counsel for the Massachusetts Department of Education into her presentations. Like the others, she simplified the legal doctrines and educated the participants in analyzing the issues.

In explaining the significance of the First Amendment and the Internet, Schneider emphasized, "as a matter of law, e-mail is not a phone call. It is more like a letter, but it is really a postcard; anyone can see it. As public employees, e-mails that we write and see fall into public records law. In addition, they are discoverable in cases."

Each of the presenters added key elements to avoiding litigation altogether. Perry Zirkel suggested proper documentation procedures when evaluating principals and teachers. Zirkel is the Iacocca Professor of Education and Law at Lehigh University. He also studies litigation trends in the public school context. Zirkel noted that special education represents one of the most heavily litigated areas in school law, which was in accordance with Schneider's prior statements.

Earlier in the week, Schneider dedicated several sessions to laws pertaining to students with disabilities. She focused on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal special education law, which was promulgated under a "value principle, not an efficiency model." Therefore, eligibility to the law adheres to a "zero-reject" mandate. According to Schneider, that would mean "even a child with a profound disability should not be turned away."

"Rhoda [Schneider] clarified the roles of each of the federal laws. We have the IDEA, ยง504's Rehabilitation Act of 1974, and the ADA. I have a good grasp of each and their distinguishing purposes," Kevin Brady said. Brady [M.A. 1996, philosophy and social science] plans to utilize this information extensively next year. The TC alumnus has accepted a tenure-track position at CUNY's Queens College in the Department of Educational and Community Programs.
The Institute balanced the discussion time between micro-policy and daily decision-making along with macro-policy issues. One of the national dilemmas currently entangling schools is the interrelated topic of education, race, poverty, and law.

"We are now undergoing an immense transformation of American society and the disarming of our civil rights policy which was intended to deal with that transformation," Gary Orfield explained. Orfield is Professor of Education and Public Policy at Harvard and Co-Director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project. He noted our changing demographics; for instance, "our Latino population wasn't really even counted significantly until 1980, but the Census Bureau projects 100 million Latinos in the United States by 2050. That will make us the second largest Latin American country in the world."

At present, the imbalance in treatment and facilities needs to be addressed in our segregated system of education. Orfield added that the current system provides "extremely unequal preparation in schools and high barriers to exit," which is merely increasing the educational divide.

The words "learning" and "law" have become new companion words for many at the conference. Julie Gherardi, a student in the Future School Administrators Academy at TC, mentioned that as a teacher in the primary grades, she "never thought much about the impact of legislation and court cases on educational practice." Indeed, the speakers pointed out that some of these interactions of law and educational policy result in unintended consequences.

This is particularly applicable to the standards movement. As Thomas Sobol, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Practice, stated, "We're all in favor of high standards and accountability," but we disagree on how to reach that level.

Sobol began his session role-playing an administrator who announces a high-stakes exam would be administered at the end of the week to obtain credit for this conference. Laughter immediately followed. Sobol inquired as to what was so funny. He reiterated that the purpose of the exam was to raise standards and to ensure learning at the Institute. Emily Neidenberg, an educational administration student at TC, retorted, "We know that out of fairness this would not exist. If this were true, it would probably deter us from having such a fluid discussion. Instead, we would just try to gather the professors' statements and focus only on the exam." Sobol nodded in agreement then stated, "Every good idea contains the seeds of its own heresy."

The goal of some test advocates is to place a formula on learning. Sobol noted a strange educational phenomenon: "How do we know when English 9 is over? It's June." To ameliorate disparities from similar courses offered at different schools, some advocates of high-stakes testing have pushed for standardization of education. In doing so, they no longer rely on minimal competency tests. Instead, they are utilizing what is referred to as world-class standards as a condition to grade promotion or graduation.

Heubert reminded the participants that tests, when used appropriately, are very helpful. On the other hand, tests implemented to measure something other than what was intended is like the misuse of a thermometer.

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