Iowa Supreme Court Refuses to Reinstate School Standards Case

Last Updated: May 30, 2012

This article appeared in the May 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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In a decision announced late last month, the Iowa Supreme Court declined to reinstate the claims of plaintiffs in King v. Iowa, with the majority of justices ruling that plaintiffs needed to state different legal claims or utilize the political process to effect the reforms they sought.

The group of parents and students who sued the state in 2008 hailed from three school districts, including rural West Harrison Community School District in far western Iowa, near the Nebraska border. Defendants included not only the state, but also the then-Governor of Iowa Chet Culver, the Iowa Department of Education, and its director.

The lawsuit claimed “that Iowa’s educational system is not adequately serving students in either the largest or the smallest school districts” because there are no statewide, uniform educational standards, assessments, teacher training, recruitment, or retention programs in the Hawkeye State.

In this novel legal approach, plaintiffs described at length disparities in educational outcomes among Iowa districts and alleged that there has been a “failure to provide similar educational opportunities for all of Iowa’s students.” They claimed that these disparities amounted to violations of the state’s constitutional education, due process, and equal protection clauses. In particular, according to the plaintiffs, students in Iowa’s smallest districts were disadvantaged.

The trial court dismissed the entire lawsuit in 2008, calling the claims nonjusticiable political questions, and plaintiffs appealed the decision. King was argued before the Iowa Supreme Court in March of 2010, and reargued in June of last year after three new justices joined the court.

The court was sharply divided in its ruling; its 4–3 decision ran 163 pages in length with five separate written opinions.

Although many of the allegations in King were similar to those made in school finance cases, as the court stated at the outset of its decision, “…this is not a school funding case.” The court continued, “Plaintiffs do not allege that Iowa has a funding system that discriminates among school districts or even one that funds schools inadequately.” Instead, plaintiffs blamed a lack of centralized educational policymaking for the rates of academic failure in districts and disparate educational outcomes, and claimed that the Iowa constitutional clauses as well as education statutes mandated that statewide academic standards be put in place.

Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, though, those claims were not accepted by the court, who ruled, “Plaintiffs’ criticisms of state education policy do not amount to a violation of article IX, division 2, section 3.” They also pointed out that “It bears emphasis that Iowa’s education clause, unlike the constitutions of most other states, does not mandate free public schools.”

Iowa’s constitutional education clause calls on the legislature to “encourage, by all suitable means, the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement.” The court gave deference to the actions of the state on education policies under the “rational basis” legal standard, meaning that there was a conceivable reason for not establishing greater statewide standards.

Five of seven justices discussed possibility of a constitutional right to an education, even if allegations in the King case fell short. In the ruling, they stated, “We defer to another day the question whether education can amount to a fundamental right under the Iowa Constitution, thereby triggering heightened scrutiny.” The two dissenting justices argued that the case should have been sent back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Iowa is currently the only state in the nation without statewide curriculum standards, although the state did adopt the national Common Core Standards last year. Thus far, individual school districts have decided what teachers are required to teach.

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Read more from the May 2012 Rural Policy Matters.