Home School Case: The Big Question Goes Unanswered

The Texas Supreme Court has held that homeschooling parents who allege that the district has violated their constitutional rights do not have to file a complaint with the local district, or appeal the school board’s decision to the Commissioner. Instead, they can go directly to court with their lawsuit.

The case involves parents in El Paso who refused to sign the form the district asked for that would verify that they were providing a bona fide home school. Not only did the parents refuse to sign that simple form—they also filed suit, alleging that the district was violating their constitutional rights.

Notice that the district did not initiate litigation. The parents were never charged with a crime, nor were the students prosecuted for truancy. The parents filed the suit, seeking damages of over $800,000, because they claimed that the district was infringing on constitutional rights by requiring them to sign a form.

We thought that this case would lead to an answer from the Supreme Court about the key issue here: Is it OK for a school to require some sort of verification that home schooling is really taking place? The Court’s answer to that question is: WE DON’T KNOW. Instead of answering the question the court sent the case back to the El Paso District Court for a ruling.

Sheesh. You see the Court of Appeals had ruled against the parents on the theory that they should have taken their issue up with the El Paso school board, and then the Commissioner. The lawyers call this “exhaustion of administrative remedies.” The theory is that if there are administrative remedies available, (such as an appeal to the Commissioner) then you have to go through that process before you go to court. Since the parents had filed suit without complaining to the board or appealing to the Commissioner, the Court of Appeals tossed the case out for lack of jurisdiction. The Texas Supreme Court has now reversed that decision. The majority of the Court held that the parents were not complaining about the “school laws of Texas” but rather, an infringement of their constitutional rights. The majority held that such claims need not, and indeed, cannot be decided by Commissioner Morath’s office.

The dissenting opinion thought that this was flim flam: “Yet the Court today…holds that homeschool parents can avoid that exhaustion requirement simply by cloaking their school-law claims in constitutional language.”

This is an important decision, but not for the reason we were expecting. We thought the decision would be a significant ruling regarding the rights of parents to home school their kids and the responsibilities of school officials to make sure that all kids are being educated. Instead, the case is important because of how it clips the wings of the Commissioner’s office. You can expect more disgruntled parties to go directly to court now. If they allege that the district somehow violated the state or federal constitution, they can bypass administrative avenues.

The case is McIntyre v. El Paso ISD, decided by the Texas Supreme Court, 6-3, on June 24, 2016.


File this one under: PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE