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Importance of Understanding School Law for Educational Leaders

Almost every aspect of the education system, including student rights, student conduct, school safety, discrimination, special education, teachers’ rights, and curriculum standards, is affected by education law. Although most school districts enlist the services of legal experts, it is in the best interests of students, teachers and administrators for educational leaders to be familiar with some of the basic statues, expectations and requirements.

Federal School Legislation

Federal laws have an impact on the daily decisions and practices of both teachers and administrators. Here are just some of the more high-profile education laws:

  • The Family Educations Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of student education records. Parents, teachers and administrators must follow FERPA guidelines regarding the distribution and release of any student records until a student is 18 years of age or advances beyond high school. It is currently legal to disclose “directory” information about a student without consent, which includes student name, address, phone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance.
  • No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was in effect from 2002-2015 and held schools accountable for student learning and achievement and penalized schools that didn’t show improvement.
  • Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed by President Obama in 2015, essentially replaced NCLB. This law is “focused on the clear goal of fully preparing all students for success in college and careers.”
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) “makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children.”

General Legislation Affecting Education

Laws not specifically about education, like the First Amendment governing free speech and the topic of censorship, also have relevance for teachers, administrators and students.

Free speech and censorship issues crop up in educational settings on a regular basis, and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) states that education leaders must know how to balance “the educational needs of a diverse student body while maintaining respect for individual rights.” NCAC points out that Supreme Court decisions make it clear that the right to free speech is sometimes overruled by a school’s educational mission. “A school is not comparable to a public park where anyone can stand on a soapbox or a bulletin board on which anyone can post a notice. While students and teachers do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate’ (Tinker v. Des Moines), speech is not quite as free inside educational institutions as outside.”

State School Legislation

Since education laws vary from state to state, it is important to be aware of the laws that impact your state. Typically, state laws regulate issues not addressed at the federal level, such as teacher retirement, charter schools, state testing requirements, compulsory education, prayer in public schools and corporal punishment in public schools, to name a few.

Legal Responsibilities

In addition to providing a quality education, teachers are legally required to provide proper supervision and a safe and secure environment for their students. Federal and state laws also govern the privacy of school records.

Many states also adopt laws that require teachers and other school employees to report abuse, neglect or mistreatment of children. Disciplinary measures permitted by school employees have also been limited.

Ethical Responsibilities

In every situation, teachers and administrators are expected to treat students with respect, observing boundaries appropriate to their age, gender, culture and socioeconomic background. It is incumbent upon teachers and administrators to promote safety, security and acceptance in the classroom and avoid bullying, hostility, dishonesty or neglect.

And, keeping in mind that teachers are role models, it is important to demonstrate integrity and ethical behavior in the classroom and in interactions with parents and staff. Fostering healthy relationships with students, parents, staff, colleagues, counselors and administrators is critical.

Learning About Education Law

The University of Southern Maine offers an Master of Science in Education in Educational Leadership degree program completely online. This MSEd program includes many educational leadership topics, including capstone internship programs and courses on educational law and special education law.

Upon completion of the program, education professionals will have the credentials to serve in leadership roles such as school principal, curriculum coordinator, or administrator of special education. Graduates will also have the leadership skills and know the practices needed to be successful.

The fully online program offers the flexibility and convenience that working professionals are looking for as they pursue an advanced degree while continuing to work.

Learn more about the University of Southern Maine’s online Master of Science in Education in Educational Leadership program.


ThoughtCo.: How School Legislation Impacts Teaching and Learning

U.S. Department of Education: Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

U.S. Department of Education: About IDEA

U.S. Department of Education: Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

U.S. Department of Education: No Child Left BehindNational Coalition Against Censorship: The First Amendment in Schools: A Resource Guide

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