Elias Zarate vs Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners
Why can’t Elias Zarate become a barber just because he never graduated high school? He has overcome terrible obstacles in his life. Elias was essentially orphaned and abandoned at age 13. But the one challenge he could not overcome originated from his own government when it legally disqualified him and anyone without a high school degree from receiving a barber license. But Elias only dropped out of high school to finish raising his two younger siblings. He’s worked every job under the sun to survive and support his family, but his dream is to become a barber. Unfortunately, because of a poorly thought law that was aimed at protecting existing license holders and not the public, his dream is just that.
Elias has everything he needs to become a great barber. He is a fantastic worker. When Elias was left on his own, he managed to put himself through the majority of high school, attending classes during the day and working at night. However, when he was in the middle of his 12th grade year, his grandparents became unable to care for his two younger siblings any longer. Elias made the decision to drop out of high school to care for them.
Over the next several years, Elias worked in a restaurant and as a manager of a construction crew installing ceramic tile to support his younger siblings. He also worked odd jobs as he could find them, and he while honing his skills as a barber, his one true passion. He provided for both of his siblings all the way through their high school careers.
Elias is creative and social. He is now 25 and has a family of his own. He wants them to have a better life than he had, and he is ready to have a career. Regarded in his neighborhood as one of the best barbers in his around, he has a bright future and dreams of one day opening a shop. And he knows he is good at it. On reputation alone, Elias earned a job at a high-end barber shop in the Memphis area.
After so many years of hard, grueling work to provide for others, Elias thought he had made it. He was finally able to work in a field that he cared about and had a talent for, and he was able to earn good money doing it. Life, it seemed, was coming together.
State officials quickly tore his dream apart. Elias was shut down shortly after he got started. He was subjected to fines and other civil punishment. Elias wants to do the right thing and go to school but he can’t because he is ineligible to become licensed no matter what.
This case poses a simple question: what does graduating high school have to do with becoming a barber? Barbers cut hair. They do not need to understand algebra II or The Great Gatsby. Requiring barbers to graduate high school before working is irrational, and hurts people who are perfectly capable of becoming barbers but otherwise do not have a great number of career paths as stable and rewarding as barbering.
No one needs a high school degree to cut hair. Tennessee doesn’t require a high school diploma out of other similarly situated professions, even other professions that involve cutting and styling hair like a cosmetologist. Including this requirement doesn’t make barbering any safer. It just makes the license harder to get, which is good for existing licensees, and the sole conceivable purpose of the restriction.
The high school requirement was added in 2015 in a large bill that was dubbed a “clean up” bill as part of the merger of the cosmetology and barber boards. There isn’t any indication that undereducated barbers were ever a problem. Certainly, no one was concerned about public health and safety. Indeed, if that was a concern then the law would have applied retroactively, prohibiting barbers without a high school degree from continuing, but no one even brought that up during the legislative process. Instead, this new requirement sailed through without much notice at all.
In 2018, lawmakers debated repealing the law. This time, the lawmakers discussed the need to encourage people to stay in school. The problem, however, is that senators, governors, and representatives – in other words, the very people who were writing the law in the first place – made a rule that did not apply to them. The high school requirement doesn’t serve the goal of protecting the public. It doesn’t serve the purpose of encouraging people to stay in school either.
Laws are supposed to be about protecting the public, not enriching private parties at the public’s expense. This law only helps those who already are barbers by making it harder to become one. The result is that Elias and countless others like him find their own government would deny them the American dream. Laws that protect private interests are unconstitutional and the courts shouldn’t hesitate to say so.
The high school requirement violates Elias’s right to earn a living, and his right to equal treatment under the law, as protected under the state and federal constitutions.
At its core, there are two problems with requiring barbers to graduate high school. First, graduating high school is not rationally related to barbering. Tennessee’s educational standards contain nothing about barbering in the curriculum. It mandates proficiency in the standard subjects: mathematics, social studies, and English language arts. None of these things are within the practice of barbering.
Besides, anything he needs to know he will learn in barber school. To obtain a license in the first place, Elias will have to go to barber school for 1,500 hours where he will learn anything he needs to know. Only then could he demonstrate his competency through state-approved testing; high school is irrelevant.
The second problem is that the high school requirement results in unequal treatment under the law. Cosmetology includes virtually identical practices: cutting and styling hair, dying, shaving, nail care, etc. Cosmetologists, however, need only graduate 10th grade (as barbers did, until 2015). The only differences between what barbers can do and what cosmetologists can do, is that barbers can shave using a straight edged razor (as opposed to a safety razor), and cosmetologists can perform pedicures. Otherwise, their allowed activities are identical.
Tennessee, in fact, does not require a high school degree to be an Emergency Medical Responder (EMR), that is, a job that administers lifesaving interventions while awaiting medical treatment. But they need only to be able to speak English; no high school degree is required. This is an example of a rational educational background because EMRs need to be able to communicate easily with a patient. Regardless, if a person can safely be trained to be an EMR without a high school degree, then a person can shave using a straight edged razor.
The Legal Team
Braden Boucek is the Director of Litigation for the Beacon Center.
Justin Owen is the president and CEO of the Beacon Center.