Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
Law & Courts

A Full U.S. Appeals Court Lets Federal Right-to-Education Case Go Forward

By Mark Walsh — December 11, 2020 3 min read
Image shows a courtroom and gavel.

Over a vigorous dissent, a full federal appeals court has narrowly voted against rehearing a case in which an appellate panel revived a lawsuit raising a novel claim to a federal right to education for poor children in two Mississippi school districts.

The suit alleges that Mississippi’s lack of a “uniform” education system under its 1987 state constitution violates the post-Civil War federal law that readmitted the state to the Union based on an 1868 state constitution that did include such a guarantee.

In an April decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, unanimously reinstated the claims brought by a group of African-American women on behalf of their children attending substandard schools in Jackson and Yazoo City, Miss.

The appellate panel revived the part of the suit based on the federal Readmission Act, but it said it could not revive a claim that the uniform education clause of the 1868 Mississippi constitution was still legally binding.

Mississippi asked the full 5th Circuit court to toss out the panel’s ruling and reconsider the case based on arguments that there is no private right to sue to enforce the Readmission Act and that the plaintiffs are seeking to have a federal court order state officials to “conform their conduct to state law as it was in 1868,” as they put it in court papers.

‘This Strange Case …’

On Dec. 7, in a short opinion in Williams v. Reeves, the full 5th Circuit court announced that it had voted 9-8 against rehearing.

Judge Edith H. Jones wrote a dissent joined by the other seven who would have voted to rehear the case.

“This strange case seeks a declaratory judgment that Mississippi’s 1868 Constitution, which satisfied the terms of the post-Civil War Readmission Act of Congress, granted more educational rights to African-American children than an amendment to the state’s Constitution in 1987,” Jones said.

Jones said the result sought by the plaintiffs would essentially “tell Mississippi what its state Constitution meant then and means now and would pave the way for federal court orders to effect a major restructuring of state school funding. Federal courts, however, have no business interpreting and enforcing state law against state government.”

Jones said that the federal district court, taking up the revived lawsuit, will have to balance the meaning of “a uniform system” of public schools in Mississippi’s 1868 constitution against “the establishment, maintenance and support” of public schools described in the state’s 1987 constitutional amendment.

“Only after finding that the provisions conflict and that the newer provision is less protective of plaintiffs’ children than the 1868 provision could a court conclude that the ‘school rights and privileges’ referenced in the federal Readmission Act have not been ‘secured by the constitution’ of Mississippi,” Jones said.

The analysis required under the suit is really a task for Mississippi’s state courts, not any federal court, Jones said. And the state has sovereign immunity from suits of this sort, she said.

“The plaintiffs’ case is doomed irrespective of constitutional sovereign immunity because [the plaintiffs] are not empowered to enforce the Readmission Act,” Jones said. “We may not subject the state to further litigation and travail.”

But the vote against rehearing will subject the state to “further litigation and travail,” although it seems likely the state will appeal the panel decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which may be less receptive to the plaintiffs’ theory of the case.

The Mississippi suit is advancing in a year when there have been several significant developments in cases invoking various theories of a federal right to education.

In April, in a decision that briefly jolted school law circles, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, issued an opinion recognizing a federal constitutional right of access to education, in the form of a right to literacy. But that decision was later vacated after the underlying lawsuit challenging poor conditions in the Detroit school system was settled.

In October, a federal district judge in Rhode Island held that the U.S. Constitution does not encompass a right to civics education, though the judge commended the thrust of the lawsuit brought by high school students in the state as “a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country which we—the generation currently in charge—are not stewarding well.”

Related Tags:

Events

School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Branding your district matters. This webinar will provide you with practical tips and strategies to elevate your brand from three veteran professionals, each of whom has been directly responsible for building their own district’s brand.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. school districts are using hybrid learning right now with varying degrees of success. Students and teachers are getting restless and frustrated with online learning, making curriculum engagement difficult and disjointed. While
Content provided by Samsung

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools
Elementary Teacher - Scholars Academy
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools
Special Education Teacher
Chicago, Illinois
JCFS Chicago
Clinical Director
Garden Prairie, IL, US
Camelot Education

Read Next

Law & Courts Supreme Court Considers Issue of Damages That Comes Up in Many Suits Over School Policies
The justices weigh whether students still have a case for "nominal damages" when schools change a policy in response to a lawsuit.
6 min read
supreme court IMG
iStock/Getty
Law & Courts U.S. Supreme Court to Weigh Whether Schools May Discipline Students for Internet Speech
The justices will hear the appeal of a school district whose discipline of a student for her vulgar message on Snapchat was overturned.
5 min read
Law & Courts District's At-Large Elections Violated Minority Voting Rights, Federal Appeals Court Finds
The case involves school board elections in a majority Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish district with a large Black and Latino population.
3 min read
Image of people at voting booths.
LPETTET/E+
Law & Courts Federal Appeals Court Revives Teacher's Pay-Discrimination Case Over Starting Salary
The court weighed an administrator's alleged comment that the teacher's starting pay was less because her husband worked.
3 min read