Teachers and students in public schools who believe that they have been deprived of a right guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution or laws can take their claims to a federal court. Not infrequently they do, to the consternation of school boards and administrators. Whether teachers and students in charter schools have a comparable right can be a tricky legal question, as a recent decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals shows.
Charter schools are created under state statutes, but they often retain a private character. Can they qualify as "state actors" for a plaintiffs purpose of using Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U. S. Code, which is the main gateway for achieving relief? In the case from Arizona that the Ninth Circuit decided, the answer was no, and the claims of the plaintiff were dismissed.
The plaintiff, Michael Caviness, had been employed for six years as a teacher of health and physical education and a track coach at Horizon Community Learning Center, a nonprofit corporation that operated a charter school in Phoenix. A female student tiled a grievance charging that he had crossed "the student-teacher boundary." At a hearing, Horizon's governing board learned that the student had a "crush" on Caviness and that the two had been communicating by telephone. The board concluded that he had exercised questionable judgment and kept him on paid administrative leave until his contract expired. When he applied for a job in the Mesa Public Schools, Horizon's executive director declined to evaluate him, and Caviness claimed that what the director said to Mesa was "purposely false and incomplete" and intended to harm him. He further claimed that some Horizon employees had defamed him by falsely calling him a pedophile.
Caviness filed a complaint under Section 1983 alleging that Horizon had, without due process, deprived him of his liberty interest in finding work, in that it had not granted him a hearing to clear his name. To establish that the school was a "state actor," he made five arguments: that Arizona law defines a charter school as a public school; that a charter school is a state actor for all purposes, including employment; that a charter school provides a public education, a function that is traditionally and exclusively the prerogative of the state; that a charter school is a state actor in Arizona because the state regulates the personnel matters of such schools; and that it is a state actor because charier schools, unlike traditional private schools, are permitted to participate in the state's retirement system. …