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Most of us follow the law in our daily lives. We do so in part—along with our desire to avoid punishment—because the laws that affect us are largely consistent with our values and morals. In more technical or highly regulated legal domains like education, this becomes more complicated, but the general premise holds: In most situations, when we adhere to our values, we also follow the law.
From this perspective, legal compliance is not the ultimate goal. The goal is to act on our personal and professional values. Legal compliance becomes both a tool that can be used to achieve that goal and a result of pursuing that goal. For school board members and school leaders, this means asking not “What does the law require?” but rather “How can we navigate the law to further our educational mission?” Asking this question empowers school leaders to realize their educational values while also ensuring that they meet their legal obligations.
Fortunately for school leaders, as is true in our daily lives, the laws that govern public schools typically align with deeply held educational values. While there may be disagreement about the application of these values in particular situations, there are important educational values advanced by many of the laws that guide the work of school leaders. We can all agree that students should have equal educational opportunity, which is the goal of laws like Title IX, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974.
We also can agree that parents and community members have important roles to play in children’s education and that public schools should be accountable to the public. There are hosts of laws that address these values, from the parental involvement provisions of the IDEA to public sunshine and ethics laws. And we can agree that decisions about discipline and employment should be fair, which is the goal of due process protections for students and teachers. While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, it demonstrates how school leaders can align their educational goals with laws in education that also further those objectives.
What does this look like in practice? Take, for example, the recent U.S. Supreme Court case about the cursing cheerleader, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. (2021). In that case, the Supreme Court concluded that the First Amendment prevented a school from disciplining a student for her off-campus speech. At issue was a Snapchat message that B.L. posted from a local convenience store outside school hours that contained vulgar language and that could be read as being critical of the school and school staff. School administrators punished B.L. by removing her from the cheerleading squad.
There are multiple, potentially conflicting educational values at play in Mahanoy. On the one hand, the school was motivated by a desire to achieve the educational goals of cohesion, teamwork, deference to authority, and decorum. On the other, the Supreme Court prioritized the educational goals inherent in the First Amendment, namely that robust free speech is important to a democratic society and that public schools act as nurseries of democracy.
How then should school leaders navigate situations like this under Mahanoy in ways that advance their educational goals while staying within the bounds of the law? One potential solution is to embrace what Bryan Warnick calls the “educational criterion” in his book, Understanding Student Rights in Schools: Speech, Religion, and Privacy in Educational Settings. Under the educational criterion, where schools seek to address student speech, they ought to do so in educational ways that affirm the value of the speech while also recognizing other important values.
In the off-campus speech context under Mahanoy, schools may not be able to punish students for most of their off-campus speech, but they can embrace situations relevant to their educational mission as teachable moments. If a student posted something like what B.L. posted after Mahanoy, consistent with the educational criterion, the school could engage her and the affected community in dialogue that affirms B.L.’s rights to free speech while also promoting the school’s desire to encourage cohesion and decorum. In this way, school leaders can both comply with the law and advance their educational goals.
Unfortunately, laws that govern education won’t always align with our educational values. Sometimes there will be situations in which the law requires school leaders to act in ways that run contrary to their educational values. Yet, even in these situations, school leaders can advance important education goals. One oft-stated goal of public education in our democratic society is to prepare students for citizenship, and an important aspect of being a responsible citizen is respecting the rule of law.
When the law requires school leaders to act in ways that counter their educational values, they can model respect for the rule of law. School leaders can affirm their values, explain how the law departs from those values, and then communicate why they are obliged to follow the law anyway. Doing so advances the educational mission of public education even where the result may not.
Ultimately, as school leaders think through how to use the law as a tool to support their educational mission, they should recognize the significant discretion they have within the law. The law tells us what we must do, what we must not do, and what we may do. In each situation, school leaders can find ways to realize their educational values and goals in determining how to follow the law. The role of the savvy school leader is to find opportunities to comply with the law in ways that advance those educational goals.
Christopher D. Thomas is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Florida.
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