When the National School Boards Association’s Council of School Attorneys formed in 1967, school law was not widely recognized as a specialized practice. School boards largely were represented by local attorneys, who also practiced other types of law. Visionaries including Thomas A. Shannon, then the general counsel for the San Diego City Schools and later head of NSBA, foresaw the critical role effective legal counsel would have in protecting the assets and mission of their public school clients. At their urging, COSA was formed under the corporate structure of NSBA.

As early as 1963, the NSBA convention program included a school law clinic, and by the spring of 1967, a determined core of attorneys representing public school districts supported a national forum to exchange information on the complex legal problems facing public schools. In 1969, COSA bylaws were approved at the NSBA annual conference in Miami. A small group of attorneys began to network and exchange information at its annual meetings, later to become the Annual School Law Seminar. This work continues today, as COSA fulfills its mission: to support school attorneys in their representation of public school boards by providing leadership in legal advocacy for public schools.

With increased federal and state regulation and expansion of litigation against schools, the practice of school law has grown in breadth, complexity, and sophistication. COSA has supported its members through this evolution by expanding services and resources. COSA programming allows school attorneys to learn from each other, to stay up-to-date on national school law news, and to fulfill their continuing education requirements. Through these efforts, aided by collaboration with NSBA member state school board associations, COSA continues to advance the profession of school law to serve the legal needs of school boards and public education.

COSA held its first seminar on negotiations and personnel relations in Chicago in 1969. By the early 1970’s, completely on a volunteer basis, the COSA publications committee issued a bimonthly newsletter sharing practice tips. Inquiry & Analysis was first published in 1977, and still features articles written by members from a practical point of view.

Today, COSA educational programs and publications give school attorneys tools for addressing the issues facing their clients in the courtroom, and for keeping their clients out of court by suggesting sound policies that comply with state and federal laws and can prevent potentially expensive law suits. COSA continues to expand opportunities for its members to participate in working groups that address school law issues and assist NSBA advocacy efforts in areas like reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, data privacy, and federal agency activity.

The NSBA legal team works in cooperation with COSA attorneys and NSBA’s state association members to file “friend of the court” briefs in cases affecting public education. This collaborative effort has contributed greatly to the credibility and value of NSBA’s amicus work. COSA attorneys, including those employed by state school boards associations, write, consult, and review NSBA briefs, and contribute real “on the ground” examples to help courts understand how their decisions will affect public schools.

For instance, in Borough of Duryea Guarnieri (2011), the Supreme Court’s majority opinion cited NSBA’s brief, noting that public employees enjoy the right to file grievances on a wide variety of terms of employment. This real-world example supported its decision not to recognize a public employee’s claim of retaliation as protected by the First Amendment’s Petition Clause unless the claim relates to a matter of public concern.

COSA members want to know what the law is, what strategies have worked in other states, and they want it now! COSA has innovated as technology has enabled faster communication, exchange of documents via electronic means, as well as live and recorded online learning experiences. COSA has moved all print publications to its online platform and collected them in a searchable database. Audio conferences have evolved into 14+ webinars per year, with CLE available in most jurisdictions. The email “listserv” has become a private professional networking platform where members share ideas, strategies and the latest legal precedents.

And much of this programming is provided by COSA members themselves, gratis. COSA members share their experience, professional knowledge and insight with colleagues, clients and students nationwide in the interest of securing a stable future for public schools.

Although school law has changed dramatically in 50 years, and COSA has adapted its suite of resources to meet member demands and technology advances, one thing has remained constant: the deep sense of camaraderie among COSA colleagues. Members form close working relationships and lifelong friendships at COSA events, and frequently cite networking with attorneys who share experiences as a top reason they join and stay involved in COSA. At a time when digital social networking is ubiquitous, the personal connections COSA members establish remain a hallmark of the COSA experience.

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