Will California Censor Horseshoeing Schools? Neigh!

Paul Avelar
Paul Avelar  ·  February 1, 2022

After more than four years of litigation, IJ client Bob Smith and his school, Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School (PCHS), are free to once again teach job skills to those who need them most.

Bob opened PCHS in 1991 to teach horseshoeing through mostly hands-on instruction in small groups. PCHS now has more than 2,000 graduates. Some of those students just wanted to know how to shoe their own horses. But hundreds of them are working as professional farriers. 

In 2017, Bob was informed that he was breaking the law. His crime? Teaching horseshoeing to paying students who had not completed high school, a GED, or a government exam. Under California law, people without a high school diploma or GED could not enroll in a private vocational school without first taking and passing a government-approved “ability-to-benefit” examination.  

Bob had taught people without a high school diploma or GED since day one. No state in the country prevents anyone from shoeing a horse, regardless of educational attainment. Being a farrier does not require any particular educational background—as Bob likes to observe, “Horses don’t read books or do math; you just have to be able to get under the horse and work the tools.”  

Because Bob did not require his students to have any educational background or pass any exams, California threatened to shut PCHS down. The state defended its law as “consumer protection,” but the law hurt the very people it was intended to help. The law assumed that students without formal education were too dumb to spend their own money to acquire job skills. The result was that students with limited education were shut out of a traditional path to the middle class.  

Both teaching and learning are protected by the First Amendment. That doesn’t change just because vocational skills are being taught or someone pays tuition to learn or gets paid to teach. That’s why Bob and PCHS partnered with IJ and challenged the law to protect their First Amendment right to teach, as well as the rights of their students to learn.  

Now those rights have been vindicated.  

In September 2021, the California Legislature repealed the “ability-to-benefit” requirement. Going forward, vocational schools like PCHS can admit students regardless of their level of education or their score on a state exam. This will allow professionals like Bob to continue to earn a living by teaching students valuable job skills they can use to earn a living, too. 

Although this case ended with a legislative victory, it also set important legal precedent. In June 2020, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that California’s law burdened the free speech rights to teach and to learn. That ruling set the stage not only for this legislative reform but also for other challenges to similar laws throughout the country. 

Restrictions on vocational teaching are bad for teachers, bad for students, and bad for the economy. They are also contrary to the protections for free speech in our Constitution. More states should follow California’s lead and eliminate these restrictions—or they too might have to answer to IJ and the First Amendment in court.

Paul Avelar is managing attorney of IJ’s Arizona office.

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