While principals are generally thought of as the school leaders in terms of teaching and administration, they hold another critical role: keeping schools legally compliant. Therefore, school leaders, especially principals, must be well versed in education law in order to apply relevant laws to their school communities.
A graduate school program in educational leadership prepares future school administrators to meet the requirements of such laws. For example, Barry University's online Master of Science in Educational Leadership with Florida Certification program includes coursework and instruction on both federal- and state-level education law, with a focus on Florida's school laws. This program prepares future Florida principals to understand and follow relevant legal requirements for their schools' administration.
Tyrus L. Doctor, an assistant principal in Texas' Port Arthur Independent School District, wrote in a 2013 article: "A principal's knowledge of law issues and legal decision-making are essential to
provide effective feedback for a successful school." To effectively make choices on topics from student learning to staff hiring and termination, he writes, principals should ask themselves two questions: "What legal parameters do I have to follow, and what should I do when I find out the parameters?"
Topics Addressed by Florida Education Law
Florida's education statutes cover a variety of legal topics related to the state's K-20 education system. These guiding laws exist to ensure "a seamless academic educational system that fosters an integrated continuum of kindergarten through graduate school education for Florida's students."
The laws guarantee all students receive 13 consecutive years of public instruction, beginning with kindergarten. They also mandate that the education system provide such instruction for all eligible students, including those with disabilities, gifted students, limited English proficient students, and students in Department of Juvenile Justice programs, where required by law. Florida education law applies to a variety of institutions: public schools serving all grades; virtual instruction programs; vocational-technical schools; career centers; adult, part-time, and evening schools; as well as state colleges and universities.
The state's education statutes address numerous topics within those institutions. They include, but are not limited to: school choice (including homeschooling, private schools, and tutoring); student control and discipline; students with disabilities; English language learners; account requirements; planning and budgeting; personnel matters; and use and management of facilities.
Principals need to comprehend these areas in order to properly and legally manage their schools, students, and staff.
Evolving Reasons to Understand Education Law
Education law is evolving, and principals must stay informed about updates and changes. For example, during the 2020-2021 school year, Florida school districts served nearly 3 million registered students. This was also the school year when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning across the globe, forcing schools to close for in-person learning and pivot to all-virtual or hybrid instruction models.
In the midst of leading their school communities through unprecedented upheaval, principals were also expected to comply with laws that mitigate the risk of civil lawsuits stemming from the pandemic. However, with vague and limited guidance about how education law and legal risk applied to that moment, principals had new and unclear information to process daily. The Department of Education issued compliance guidelines during the pandemic, as did Florida's Department of Education. But as Education Week reported, some districts worried they could be "one liability lawsuit away from bankruptcy."
In so many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the critical importance of education law for principals. Principals needed to confidently develop policies and plans for their schools that considered public health and safety as well as schools' obligations under state and federal law. Without a doubt, it drove home the fundamental role education law plays in informing school administration.
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