Court: Public Schools Not Accountable to Parents

Published May 1, 2000

In an important decision that will strengthen the arguments of school choice advocates, the Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously ruled on February 3 that parents cannot sue public school districts for not providing a quality education to their children. The court rejected a claim by more than 3,400 Denver parents that the Denver Public Schools had a “contractual duty” to provide a good education.

The Denver Parents Association had sued the school district over the irreparable intellectual and emotional harm their children allegedly had suffered from the “abysmal pattern of poor performance” of the Denver Public Schools. As a result, the children’s career opportunities and further learning opportunities were diminished.

The suit alleged that the school district had breached its contract by:

  • failing to provide textbooks;
  • failing to maintain orderly classrooms;
  • raising graduation rates by improper means;
  • transferring poorly performing teachers; and
  • “dumbing down” school performance standards.

If the students were enrolled in a private vocational school that had not performed a contractual obligation, they could sue that school, noted former Colorado Solicitor General Timothy M. Tymkovich, the parents’ attorney. Parents should be able to sue public schools for a similar lack of performance, he argued.

The trial court had disagreed with the parents, concluding their “concern and frustration with the quality of the Denver Public Schools, while understandable, is not properly a matter for resolution through the court system.”

The Appeals Court upheld the trial court’s ruling that “no contractual relationship exists between a public school district and its students, and their parents.” Parents are not individual citizens who have bargained with the school district, the court determined, but are “the general public” served by the school district.

“[The parents] have not individually bargained with the school district, nor individually paid for specific educational services,” wrote Judge Peter Ney for the court. “As a result, they cannot assert legal claims for the alleged failure to provide those unbargained-for services.”

“This matter is of a political nature,” continued Ney, and if parents want to change the schools, they should address such issues “at the ballot box.” Parents can’t “hold a public school district to the implementation of its educational objectives in a judicial setting.”

The court’s ruling places the responsibility for school performance squarely in the hands of the elected school board, with the role of parents being to exercise political power over the board–not to demand or expect that their individual child be properly educated. Parents are to elect the school board, provide it with resources to run the schools, and replace it if the performance of the schools is unsatisfactory.

The chronic poor performance of the Denver Public Schools–and most urban school systems across the nation–illustrates the limitations of using political means to improve schools. The court’s ruling thus strengthens the case for school choice, since vouchers would give parents much more focused authority over schools, allowing them to hold schools accountable for the education of individual children. With choice, each school would have a contractual obligation to each parent to provide a quality education to each child.

For more information …

Judge Peter Ney’s opinion in Denver Parents Association et al. v. Denver Board of Education et al. is available on the Colorado Bar Association’s Web site at