Although federal and state governments can provide some guidance and funding for schools, each school district is administered and financed by the community along with that district's state government. School districts with higher socioeconomic status tend to give more resources to their schools. Standards and quality of education consequently vary widely from state to state, town to town, and even district to district. This article looks at the roles of local governments in financing and directing school policy, as well as parental influence in each child's education.
The city or district level school board, or "Local Education Authority" (LEA), usually has the greatest authority to create, implement, and enforce educational policy. The federal government may supply some funding, and state governments supply funding and may direct some of the required curricula. However, it is up to the LEA to direct how those funds are spent, select appropriate teaching materials, offer courses, and hire, fire, and train teachers. The LEA may also sometimes collect additional taxes to fund its school system.
Courts will rarely interfere with LEA's. Educating children is considered the province of local government and as long as the government follows the correct procedure for setting education policy, courts are loath to overturn the LEA's decisions. Some areas of policy, such as ensuring equal access for all students, are set by the federal government. The LEA cannot do anything to undermine these federal mandates. However, these federal laws often have the effect of binding the authority of teachers, students, parents, and the rest of the community, which leaves the LEA generally free to set its own policy.
Parents are free to direct the education of their children, including the choice of a private school. However, states have the power to regulate private schools, with the exception of religious institutions.
Parents of children who go to public school may still exert some control over the education of their children. Many schools welcome collaboration between parents and teachers, and parents can offer suggestions to make their child's school experience better. Parents are also often the sole advocates for children with disabilities, and are instrumental in ensuring that their child gets the accommodations she deserves. Parents may also collect donations for particular school programs, like sports or music.
Homeschooling -- legal in all fifty states -- is an option for some families. It is perhaps the greatest expression of parental control over the curriculum issues that affect their children. Homeschooling requires a large time commitment on the part of the family. There may be additional requirements as well. For example, in some states parents need to register their intent to homeschool with the state's department of education or the parent's local district school board. Furthermore, many states require annual evidence of home-schooled children's progress.
For more information, see FindLaw's sections on School Curriculum Basics and Competency Testing. To answer more specific questions about legal issues that you may have related to education, you can contact an experienced education lawyer near you.
Contact a qualified education attorney to help you navigate education rights and laws.