For America's public schools, mandatory charity work may be here to stay.
Last week, the US Supreme Court refused to take up a North Carolina family's lawsuit to overturn mandatory community service at a Chapel Hill high school. The family had argued such a requirement amounted to unpaid servitude and infringed on parents' rights to direct their children's education.
Educators say the court's decision in Reinhard vs. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Board of Education may prompt more schools to adopt "service learning." Up to 10 percent of the nation's schools now use this educational concept, which encourages students to apply their skills in math, science, and social studies while volunteering for a variety of charities and public agencies.
"I think service learning is secure, unless people go overboard and don't give students a choice in what kind of community service they can do," says Kathy Christie, a researcher at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "Schools need to accommodate the needs of parents without lessening the academic requirements."
The Supreme Court has thrown out two similar lawsuits from families in New York and Pennsylvania. But the lawyer who represented the Reinhard family says there are other grounds for a challenge.
"One obvious approach is to look at how some of these programs are administered," says Scott Bullock, a lawyer at the libertarian Institute for Justice in Washington, who worked for the Reinhards pro bono. "Some school boards might show a bias against politically incorrect community service or against serving in a church activity."
John Reinhard, who filed the lawsuit, says mandatory community service "is an issue that won't go away. Most reasonable people would agree that it's a parent's duty to direct the moral and ethical upbringing of one's children," he adds. "This decision just proved that school board has a right to be coercive."
Ultimately, the question of "whose children these are" will be resolved after another family files a stronger lawsuit, Reinhard says, or if Congress passes a parental rights law. Until then, Reinhard's son John, a junior at Chapel Hill High School, is likely to transfer to a local community college where he can get his high school diploma without mandatory community service.