[authors: Maria Mazza and Brian Crowley]
In Clarke v. Community Unit School District 303, plaintiffs filed suit against a school district alleging that the District violated the law by improperly adopting a School Improvement Plan (SIP) that did not comply with the requirements of the School Code. The provisions in the School Code relating to SIPs were mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The NCLB requires states to establish and enforce statewide learning standards and to achieve adequate yearly progress toward those standards, as measured by federally approved standardized tests.
Two schools in the District—Davis and Richmond—served students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Beginning in the 2007-2008 school year, all students, including those who were limited English proficient (LEP) were included in state testing. For three consecutive school years, Richmond failed to achieve annual yearly progress and the District believed the reason for this was that Richmond had a high enrollment of LEP students. The District offered the parents of Richmond the opportunity to enroll their students in higher performing schools. As a result, enrollment at Richmond fell and enrollment at Davis increased. Beginning in the 2011-2012 school year, the District implemented a reorganization plan, which reconfigured the schools so that one school served students in kindergarten through second grade and the other school served third grade through fifth grade.
Plaintiffs alleged that the District’s reorganization plan was an SIP that was directed at improving test scores at Richmond. Plaintiffs alleged that the plan failed to address the underlying problem causing underperformance at Richmond. The plaintiffs further alleged that the plan failed to comply with the legally mandated criteria for SIPs contained in the School Code, which required that the District develop the plan in collaboration with parents and outside experts, among other requirements.
While a portion of the District’s argument provided that the plan in question was not an SIP, but a reorganization plan not subject to NCLB, the District’s main argument was that the plaintiffs did not have a private right of action to enforce the provisions of the School Code and the case should be dismissed without even reviewing the merits of the District’s plan. The Appellate Court, however, disagreed. According to the Court, plaintiffs did not seek to use the District’s alleged violations of the School Code as a basis for imposing liability on the District. Rather, plaintiffs sought to force the District’s compliance with the School Code, which constitutes a mandamus action, an action requiring that public officials comply with the requirements of the law. Therefore, the plaintiffs could pursue a mandamus claim to require the District to implement an SIP that complies with the School Code.
The Clarke case, thus, highlights the ability of parents to utilize a mandamus claim to compel a school district to comply with the NCLB requirements of the School Code.