US Supreme Court rejects case involving charter school skirt requirement

Photo of girls wearing school uniform skirts is Creative Commons from Ron Lach.

Listen to this story (8 minutes)

  • The U.S. Supreme Court will not take a case involving a disputed skirt requirement for students at a Brunswick County charter school. A split 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the requirement as unconstitutional.
  • The school's private operators wanted the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 4th Circuit's decision declaring that charter schools are "state actors."
  • Critics say the "state actor" designation could have a harmful impact on other charter school policies.

The U.S. Supreme Court will not take up a case involving a Brunswick County charter school’s disputed skirts requirement for female students. The school had asked the court to overturn a ruling that charter schools could be treated as “state actors.”

Justices offered no reason for their decision Monday to deny a “writ of certiorari” in the case Charter Day School v. Peltier. The Supreme Court issues a writ when it agrees to take a case.

“We are disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision to deny our request for a writ of certiorari, allowing the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ June 2022 decision to stand,” said Baker Mitchell, the school’s founder, in a prepared statement. 

“Because it lacks meaningful limiting principles, the Fourth Circuit’s opinion designating Charter Day School a ‘state actor’ will be applied to charter schools everywhere, threatening their autonomy, subjecting them to the same rules, regulations, and political machinations that have crippled government-run school systems, and worst of all, leaving many low-income parents and students with no option other than poorly performing district schools,” Mitchell added. 

“And that’s just the beginning. The Fourth Circuit’s overbroad approach to state-actor doctrine also threatens private social-service providers who contract with states; the Fourth Circuit already has applied its Peltier decision to hold that a private adoption agency is a state actor,” Mitchell warned. “This will lead to irreparable harm to the countless individuals and families that rely on thousands of charities nationwide for housing, food, health, and other types of assistance.” 

Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar represents the federal government in court. She urged the U.S. Supreme Court in May to reject the case, which stemmed from a parent’s complaint about the school dress code.

Operators of the school, now known as Classical Charter Schools of Leland, asked the nation’s highest court to take the case. The charter defenders wanted the Supreme Court to reverse a federal Appeals Court decision.

The full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals split 10-6 in June 2022 when ruling against Charter Day School. The majority opinion labeled the charter operator a “state actor” in the context of its dress code.

Charter school operators were the petitioners in the case. Dress code challengers were the respondents.

“The Government dutifully repeats Respondents’ arguments, but the six dissenters below were correct: The Fourth Circuit’s decision flouts this Court’s precedent, creates an important circuit split, and threatens charter-school vitality,” wrote Charter Day School’s lawyers.

“The Government defends the Fourth Circuit’s reliance on West v. Atkins,” a 1988 precedent, “to conclude that state action arises whenever the state contractually delegates the partial fulfillment of a state-constitutional obligation to a private entity,” the brief continued. “Under that sweeping view, state action would cover not only charter-school operators, but also highway and defense contractors, and even charities that assist states in delivering social-welfare services. This Court never intended its narrow, unanimous decision in West to create such a sea change.”

Charter school lawyers rebutted Prelogar’s argument that the school serves a “traditionally exclusive public function.” “But the Government blurs the lines between petitioner Charter Day School, Inc.—a private, nonprofit corporation—and the public school it operates. And the Government never responds to Petitioners’ showing that the school’s public label is immaterial to the state-action inquiry, especially when the state chose private operation to promote independence from the state.”

Other appellate courts have taken a different stance than the 4th Circuit, the charter brief argued. “The Government cannot dispute the material similarities between the decision below and those of the First, Third, and Ninth Circuits. In all four cases: (1) the state contracted (2) with a private entity (3) to provide publicly funded education (4) but did not compel the action challenged in the lawsuit. Yet only the decision below found state action.”

A favorable Supreme Court decision would have made a real difference for the charter school, according to the brief. “Reversing here will eliminate the … injunction and thus alter Petitioners’ current legal obligation to rescind its preferred policy,” school lawyers wrote. “Such a decision would also wipe out the Fourth Circuit’s constitutional ruling, leaving no judicial application of the Equal Protection Clause to bind Charter Day School, Inc.”

The 4th Circuit’s ruling would have a negative impact if it stands, the charter brief added. “The Government beggars belief by asserting that deeming charter-school operators state actors will not constrain innovation,” charter lawyers wrote. “Imposing a … fee-shifting remedy has independent, tangible, and chilling consequences on charter-school operators and their volunteer boards.”

“Many successful charter-school policies would be constitutionally questionable in government-run schools,” the brief added. “Yet states have acted to ‘maximize’ ‘individual choice’ by allowing private actors to offer a menu of creative options for parents. Even in states that require charter schools to follow constitutional norms, the specter of burdensome Section 1983 actions would allow disgruntled students or teachers to veto innovation that the contracting state applauds.”

“States and Congress — who fund charter schools — also need this Court’s guidance,” the brief warned.

The John Locke Foundation filed an amicus, or friend-of-the-court, brief in October 2022 urging the Supreme Court to take the case. Locke’s brief focused on the “state actor” issue.

“This case is important to amicus because it addresses a question fundamental to charter schools’ relationship with the State,” wrote attorney Dan Gibson, who filed the brief for Locke. “If charter schools are state actors, then charter schools will become little more than another branch of traditional public schools. That result would end the independence amicus have advocated and is enshrined in North Carolina law.”

The case started with a complaint from parent Bonnie Peltier. She objected to Charter Day School’s dress code requiring female students to wear skirts. Peltier’s attorneys argued in a federal lawsuit that a publicly funded school could not adopt that type of policy.

With more than 3.4 million students attending nearly 7,700 charter schools nationwide, the “state actor” issue has national importance, Gibson argued.

“The principle governing charter schools is that they are ‘held accountable for results — gauged primarily by academic achievement — in exchange for freedom to produce those results as they think best,’” he wrote.

Mitchell’s prepared statement indicated the school’s next step. “Classical Charter Schools of America [aka Charter Day School, Inc.] will, of course, comply fully with the Fourth Circuit’s ruling, as we did during the 2022-23 school year,” he said. “But we want to be clear that CCS-A also intends to stay true to the unique classical academic program that has served our students well for the past 24 years. This means we will resist unwarranted restrictions and interference that goes beyond the scope of the Fourth Circuit’s ruling and could saddle CCS-A with problems similar to those that have crippled so many traditional public schools across the country. The parents of our 2,700 students expect and deserve no less.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a response from the charter school’s founder.