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The Illinois Court of Appeals recently ruled that a school district had legal authority to require students to complete six hours of community service for each year of high school attendance in order to graduate.  In Earl v. Decatur Public Schools Board of Education, the plaintiff, a student’s parent, filed suit against the school district seeking a declaratory judgment and seeking to enjoin the school district from enforcing its service learning policy.  The trial court granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment, and the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

The plaintiff filed suit to prevent the district from requiring her child to complete community service for graduation.  The plaintiff argued that the Illinois School Code (Section 27-22) provided an exclusive list of courses that students were required to take in order to graduate from high school, and that the Illinois State Board of Education exceeded its authority by authorizing schools to require additional courses for graduation.

The district argued, however, that Section 27-22 provided a list of the minimum credit hours required for graduation, and that it was not an exhaustive list.  The court found that Section 27-22 provided the minimum content for a high school program of study but that school districts have the freedom to choose additional graduation requirements, and Illinois law and regulations supported that position.  On summary judgment, the trial court emphasized that the legislature had contemplated school districts requiring additional high school course requirements because 1) the relevant statute states that there may be additional course requirements, and 2) Illinois regulations state that local school boards may determine additional graduation requirements.

The appellate court also found that Section 27-22.3 permits schools to create service credit programs for students to earn credit toward graduation for completing service work. However, the appellate court found that merely because the statute allows districts to create service credit programs, it did not prohibit the district from requiring students to complete service learning hours as part of a high school graduation requirement.

The appellate court also rejected plaintiff’s argument that the district’s service learning requirement was a form of involuntary servitude.  The appellate court found that requiring students to complete up to 24 hours of community service over the course of four years was not unreasonable or unduly burdensome.

School districts often face difficult questions around graduation requirements.  Please contact Jeremy Duffy with any questions regarding graduation requirements or service learning.