From our nation’s earliest days, the national government has been involved in education, due to its significance in preparation for constructive citizenship in a republican form of government. In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance set aside public lands specifically for the establishment of schools. Through additional grants of land and money, formation of administrative agencies, the G.I. Bill, and court-ordered desegregation, federal policy has influenced education throughout our history, though traditionally the details of implementation were worked out at state and local levels.
Is a free public education a fundamental right? If so, what is the role of the federal government in assuring that the right is guaranteed in a manner that aligns with the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause? These questions are at the heart of San Antonio v. Rodriguez, a 1973 Supreme Court case.
Demetrio Rodriguez, son of migrant farm workers, was born in 1926, and he had to leave school and go to work after the sixth grade. In the 1960s he lived with his wife and five children in San Antonio, Texas. Their west-side neighborhood in the Edgewood school district was home to almost exclusively Mexican-American families. Rodriguez had served in the military and in 1968 was a sheet metal worker at Kelly Air Force Base. He was well-acquainted with the substandard condition of his children’s schools. That year, Latino students all across the southwest U.S. protested unequal educational opportunities. On May 16, four hundred students from Edgewood High School walked out of class to hold a protest march and demonstration at the district’s administration offices. Their grievances included lack of books and supplies, crowded and unsafe buildings, and lack of well-qualified teachers.
Rodriguez and seven other Edgewood parents formed a parents’ association which filed a federal law suit that summer against the Texas Board of Education and others, charging that Texas school finance law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, preventing their students from having opportunity for equal education. Under Texas law, state funding was appropriated to provide each child with a minimum education, and school districts voted to supplement that minimum with locally-levied property taxes. Even though it had four times more students than the much wealthier north-side Alamo Heights district, Edgewood had a far lower tax base. The residents of the Edgewood district had never defeated a bond issue, but they could not keep up with the needed capital improvements. Even with one of the highest tax rates in the county, their school district raised only $37 per pupil while Alamo Heights raised $413 per student.
In 1971, the federal district court’s three-judge panel ruled in favor of the Edgewood parents’ group, finding unanimously that education was a fundamental constitutional right, and that Texas’ school finance law created a wealth-based classification that deprived children in property-poor school districts of their equal protection guarantees. The court ordered the state to restructure its school finance system to correct these inequities.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision. Justice Lewis Powell wrote for the majority in the 5-4 ruling. The majority ruled that “the Equal Protection Clause does not require absolute equality or precisely equal advantages.” The Court also ruled that education is not a fundamental right with explicit protection under the Constitution, however important it is to having an informed citizenry. The majority held that the Texas law financing education met the standard of the Equal Protection Clause to further the legitimate state purpose and interest in providing its citizens with an education.
Justice Potter Stewart concurred with the decision, stating that while the Texas educational funding system, like that of almost all states, was “chaotic and unjust,” it was not unconstitutional. He explained, “it has long been settled that the Equal Protection Clause is offended only by laws that are invidiously discriminatory – only by classifications that are wholly arbitrary or capricious.” He wrote that the Texas law did not meet that description.
Justice Thurgood Marshall disagreed and wrote a strong dissent. He asserted, “The majority’s holding can only be seen as a retreat from our historic commitment to equality of educational opportunity and as unsupportable acquiescence in a system which deprives children in their earliest years of the chance to reach their full potential as citizens.” While Marshall admitted that education is not a constitutionally-protected right, he implied that it supports other constitutional rights and therefore needs protection. He wrote, “The task in every case should be to determine the extent to which constitutionally guaranteed rights are dependent on interests not mentioned in the Constitution.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s narrow decision upholding Texas’ school finance law against an equal protection claim in San Antonio v. Rodriguez did not settle questions related to school finance. Charges that inadequate and inequitable school funding plans violated state constitutions have resulted in decades-long struggles in which several states’ highest courts have ordered their legislatures to create new formulas for meeting the high cost of a good education. In a republic, the cost of poor education is even higher.
San Antonio v. Rodriguez (1973) Supreme Court decision: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/411/1.html
Gennie Westbrook, formerly a classroom teacher, is a Madison Fellow (2000 TX), and senior advisor for education at The Bill of Rights Institute.
Elaine Ayala, “Rodriguez, who fought for equality, dies at 87,” My SA, April 23, 2013, accessed March 15, 2017 http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local_news/article/Rodriguez-who-fought-for-equality-dies-at-87-4456618.php
Handbook of Texas Online, Cynthia E. Orozco, “Rodriguez v. San Antonio Isd,” accessed March 15, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jrrht.
League of Women Voters: “The History of Federal Government in Public Education: Where Have We Been and How Did We Get Here?” 2011. accessed March 15, 2017, http://lwv.org/content/history-federal-government-public-education-where-have-we-been-and-how-did-we-get-here
Doug Linder, “Exploring Constitutional Law” San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, (1973) accessed March 15, 2017 http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/PROJECTS/FTRIALS/conlaw/sanantoniovrodriquez.html
Stanford University, “Equality of Opportunity and Education: Landmark US Cases Related to Equality of Opportunity in K-12 Education” accessed March 15, 2017 https://edeq.stanford.edu/sections/landmark-us-cases-related-equality-opportunity-education