In 1991, Bob Smith started Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School (PCHS) to educate a new generation of farriers—craftsmen who trim and shoe horses’ hooves. Since PCHS’s founding, Bob has taught thousands of students to shoe horses, including many who never finished high school.
In 2009 California passed the Private Postsecondary Education Act, which forced PCHS and other schools to require that prospective students possess a high school diploma—or pass an equivalent government-approved exam—before they can enroll in a private trade school. The state calls it an “ability to benefit” prerequisite. This prerequisite was never enforced against PCHS until earlier this year, when California regulators threatened to shut down PCHS if Bob didn’t start turning away any student who did not meet the state’s prerequisite education requirements.
This spring, Esteban Narez applied to PCHS—the sole horseshoeing school in California—only to find out that he couldn’t attend because he never graduated from high school. Esteban has been working odd jobs with horses for almost five years. Recently, a professional farrier named Cassidy Robyn saw promise in Esteban and made him an offer: If Esteban took PCHS’s horseshoeing course, he’d have a job as an apprentice farrier.
But California’s “ability to benefit law” is making that opportunity impossible for Esteban. Esteban cannot enroll in PCHS until he either earns his high school diploma, gets his GED, or studies for and passes a government-approved test—a test that doesn’t test anything relevant to a career in horseshoeing.
Trade schools like PCHS give students an alternative path to learn a skill, join a profession, and empower themselves to earn an honest living. But without some training, it is nearly impossible to get started in the trade—which is why Bob started PCHS in the first place.
The Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School: Where Farriers Find Their Calling
The trade of horseshoeing hasn’t appreciably changed since the Industrial Revolution. Most farriers are drawn to the job for its independence and flexibility—and the prospect of good pay. Farriers aren’t required to get a license 1
anywhere in the United States. A typical modern farrier works as a sole proprietor, for as many or as few hours as he or she wants to. A good farrier can charge upwards of $120 per horse. 2
Bob Smith has been professionally shoeing horses since 1974. He founded Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School (PCHS) in Plymouth, California to pass his skills on to another generation of farriers. Students, who pay $5,500 for the eight-week course, divide their time between classroom sessions and hands-on work forging and applying horseshoes. 3
PCHS, which accepts no state or federal student loans, has over 2,000 graduates, including hundreds who are now working as professional farriers. For his efforts as an educator, in 2010, Bob was inducted into the International Horseshoeing Hall of Fame. 4
Esteban Narez: An American Entrepreneur
Esteban Narez, 26, grew up in Watsonville, California with his mother and two sisters. Esteban withdrew from high school his senior year due to a major injury. He hasn’t been able to get a GED because the medical bills and his family’s finances have forced him to work full-time ever since. Esteban now works seven days a week at a ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
California Keeps Esteban in the Stable
In February 2017, a California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education inspector contacted PCHS and told Bob that he had to require prospective students to possess a high school diploma or its equivalent as a prerequisite to admission. The fine for ignoring the inspector is as high as $5,000. 5
Because Esteban never finished high school, PCHS was forced to deny his application.
California’s Private Postsecondary Education Act of 2009 imposes a tangled web of reporting and operating requirements on the schools it regulates. 6
For students without a high school diploma, the law requires that they either get their GED or pass an “ability-to-benefit examination” offered by a private vendor and approved by the federal government. 7
The federal government has approved the Wonderlic Basic Skills Test and the ACCUPLACER test, among others offered in both English and Spanish. 8
The exams test students’ proficiency in grammar, reading comprehension, sentence structure, arithmetic, and geometry. There are no questions about horses or horseshoeing on the exams.
Sample questions from the ACCUPLACER test, which is administered by the College Board, include:
A) If 3/2 ÷ 1/4 = n then n is between
B) 46.2 x 10-2 =
Select the best version of the underlined part of the sentence. The first choice is the same as the original.
C) I was surprised by the noise peering through the window to see who was at the door.
D) For a snake, shedding their skin up to eight times a year is part of the natural process.
California borrowed the concept of the ability-to-benefit exam from federal law, but has taken it to an extreme. The federal government has long used ability-to-benefit examinations to screen applicants for federally funded student loans and other grants 9
—in other words, when taxpayers’ money is at stake, federal law seeks to ensure the student is able to understand and learn what is being taught.
When a student wants to pay for trade school with his or her own money, federal law treats it as none of the government’s business. Nothing in federal law prohibits vocational schools from enrolling students who pay tuition upfront. California, by contrast, restricts PCHS and other trade schools from teaching students like Esteban, who never finished high school, even when the student pays with his or her money.
Off to the Races: PCHS and Esteban Sue in Federal Court
Esteban just wants to make a living, but California law makes it illegal for PCHS to teach him how—unless Esteban first satisfies the government prerequisite requirements. If he’s going to spend his time and money on taking classes or studying for a test, he wants to spend that time learning how to shoe horses—not jump through hoops learning arithmetic and sentence structure just to secure the government’s permission to enroll in a school of his choice. He doesn’t need to know pre algebra to learn how to shoe a horse. He needs to go to farrier school, and California’s red tape is keeping Esteban and students like him from getting the vocational instruction they need most.
Teaching a skill is no different than writing a how-to book, publishing a series of newspaper stories, or uploading an instructional video to YouTube. In other words, teaching is a form of Constitutionally-protected free speech. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court held that any conduct which consists of “communicating a message” is protected by the First Amendment. 10
Teaching horseshoeing is precisely that. PCHS wants to communicate, to Esteban and students like him, the right way to shoe a horse.
Prohibiting Bob from teaching students like Esteban is a clear violation of the First Amendment. The First Amendment doesn’t tolerate this kind of paternalistic government censorship, which is why the Institute for Justice filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of PCHS, Bob, and Esteban in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California to put a stop to it.
Countless Americans—from reporters to tour guides to lawyers—earn their living in occupations that consist primarily of communicating. IJ has sued to protect the free speech rights of diet coaches, makeup artistry teachers, engineers, and veternarians 11
and has won landmark victories on behalf of a family therapist offering simple parenting advice given in a newspaper column, 12
Bob, through PCHS, earns a living by communicating: Teaching students like Esteban how to shoe horses. Both teaching and learning are protected by the First Amendment, and that doesn’t change just because someone pays to learn or gets paid to teach. After all, as the U.S. Supreme Court recognized long ago, “the degree of First Amendment protection is not diminished merely because . . . speech is sold rather than given away.” 13
California’s shortsighted law not only violates teachers’ First Amendment right to teach, but also their students’ right to learn. Making it illegal to teach a useful skill harms the very people the law was intended to help.
The Plaintiffs are: the Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School, a California corporation; Bob Smith, the owner of PCHS; and Esteban Narez, a would-be student of PCHS.
The Defendants are: Kimberly Kirchmeyer, the California Director of Consumer Affairs; and Michael Marion, Chief of the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education. Both Defendants are responsible for enforcing the challenged law and are sued in their official capacities only.
The litigation team consists of IJ Attorney Keith Diggs and IJ Senior Attorney Paul Avelar. Brad Benbrook (Benbrook Law Group, Sacramento) has teamed up with IJ to serve as local counsel.