Law & Courts

After 50 Years, a U.S. Supreme Court Decision on Educational Equity Is Still Debated

By Mark Walsh — March 20, 2023 12 min read
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen at near sunset in Washington, on Oct. 18, 2018.
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There is no federal constitutional right to equal education, the U.S. Supreme court ruled 50 years ago this month.

The court’s decision, issued March 21, 1973, crushed the hopes of many parents, children, educators, advocates, and theorists when it rejected a federal legal challenge to Texas’ school funding system.

“The poor people have lost again,” Demetrio P. Rodríguez, the Mexican-American father of five children who all eventually attended the chronically underfunded Edgewood Independent School District covering a section of San Antonio, and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that had challenged inequities in the Texas system, told The New York Times the day of the ruling.

Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote the opinion for a 5-4 majority in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, which held that the Texas funding school system did not discriminate against any definable class of poor people and that wealth was not a “suspect class” requiring the highest level of constitutional scrutiny of state policies.

“The very complexity of the problems of financing and managing a statewide public school system suggests that there will be more than one constitutionally permissible method of solving them, and that, within the limits of rationality, the legislature’s efforts to tackle the problems should be entitled to respect,” Powell wrote.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, in dissent, said the decision confined “countless children” to receiving “inferior educations” in a betrayal of the equal-protection principles the court had embraced in its 1954 desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

“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,” Marshall wrote.

In the last footnote of his dissent, Marshall said, “Of course, nothing in the court’s decision today should inhibit further review of state educational funding schemes under state constitutional provisions.”

That foretold decades of litigation in state courts over educational equity and adequacy that bore much progress in the eyes of advocates for students and underfunded districts.

“The Rodriguez case played a significant role in educational opportunity cases beyond the role of the federal courts,” said Kimberly Jenkins Robinson, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a leading scholar of the legacy of the case. “On the issues the Supreme Court said state legislatures would address, we’ve seen some improvements 50 years later. But we still see significant and egregious disparities along race and class lines.”

A higher tax rate, but fewer dollars received

The 50th anniversary is being recognized with several events, including a conference on March 22 to be hosted by the Edgewood district and Trinity University in San Antonio.

One of the speakers in that event will be Patricia Rodríguez, the youngest child of Demetrio and Belen Rodríguez, who was born in 1971 and later became a teacher in the Edgewood district.

“My father was not afraid to speak the truth,” she said at an Education Law Association conference in San Antonio in 2021. “He was not afraid to speak up when he saw wrongs happening in the world. And so he was the first parent to actually step up and sign that petition to file the lawsuit.”

Demetrio Rodríguez was a son of migrant farm workers who served in World War II, and a sheet metal worker at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. His four sons attended Edgewood Elementary School, where Rodríguez noticed substandard conditions that included a lack of textbooks, many teachers serving with emergency permits instead of full certification, and a leaky roof.

Demetrio Rodríguez and other parents had formed a local association in 1968, after about 400 students had staged a walkout from Edgewood High School over the conditions in their building.

The parents contacted a local lawyer, Arthur Gochman, who determined that despite having the highest property tax rate in the San Antonio area, the Edgewood district, then with 22,000 students, received only about $26 per student from its property tax assessments. One of the area’s wealthiest districts, the 5,000-student Alamo Heights Independent School District, was getting $333 per student despite a lower tax rate. Adding state foundation and federal funding, Edgewood spent $356 per pupil while Alamo Heights spent $594 around the time of the lawsuit.

The parents filed a class action based on the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause in federal district court against the Edgewood district and several surrounding districts, as well as against state officials. The larger San Antonio district was listed as the first defendant, leading to the somewhat confusing case caption. Despite being defendants, the poor school districts aided the plaintiffs, which is not unusual in school finance cases. Edgewood’s superintendent testified that 32 percent of the district’s students dropped out of school between 7th and 12th grades, a much higher rate than the wealthier districts.

The wealthy districts, including Alamo Heights, successfully argued to be removed as defendants, and they later filed briefs supporting the state’s defense of the school finance system.

Because the state was effectively the main defendant, the case went before a special three-judge federal district court. That court decided unanimously in late 1971 that the Texas school finance system violated the equal protection clause. The court held that wealth was a “suspect classification” that triggered “strict scrutiny” of the state’s system. The court emphasized that it was not requiring absolute equality in per-pupil funding across the state, but only “fiscal neutrality” that would permit every school district to raise a similar amount regardless of its local property tax base. (The latter term had come from a recently published and influential book on school finance by University of California, Berkeley, law professor John E. Coons, and two colleagues.)

The district court enjoined Texas state constitutional provisions and statutes dealing with school finance, though it delayed the force of its for two years to give the state time to act. The state instead appealed to the Supreme Court.

An intense interest in the case by one justice

The composition of the high court had changed considerably in the years since the Rodriguez case had been filed in 1968. Chief Justice Earl Warren, who oversaw a liberal revolution in the court’s recognition of individual rights in numerous areas of the law, retired in 1969. He was succeeded by Warren E. Burger, the first of four nominees of Republican President Richard M. Nixon who were in place by the time the Texas school case reached the court.

One of those was Powell, who joined the court in early 1972. He had been a member of the Richmond, Va., school board through most of the 1950s, and on the Virginia state board of education, including a period as its chairman, in the 1960s. He was a strong believer in local control of education.

In an August 1972 memo to one of his law clerks, before the court heard arguments, Powell was critical of the “activist scholarship” of Coons and his colleagues and the idea that unequal wealth among school districts was a suspect classification. In another memo, Powell expressed doubts about Coons’s theory that the quality of education varies directly with the amount of money spent.

That thesis “has been assumed by many to be true but proved by no one,” Powell wrote. (The internal memos are part of the justice’s papers at Washington & Lee University law school.)

Powell would be assigned to write the opinion for the tentative Supreme Court majority that sided with the state. Joining him in the majority were Burger and Justice Potter Stewart, as well as Nixon’s two other appointees, Justices Harry A. Blackmun and William H. Rehnquist.

Besides rejecting wealth as a suspect class, Powell turned away the plaintiffs’ claims that education was a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution—though leaving the door slightly ajar for asserting such a right under some circumstances.

“Education, of course, is not among the rights afforded explicit protection under our Federal Constitution,” Powell wrote. “Nor do we find any basis for saying it is implicitly so protected.”

Powell rejected the Texas plaintiffs’ claim that education was a fundamental personal right because it was essential to the effective exercise of First Amendment freedoms of expression and to the intelligent use of the right to vote.

“Even if it were conceded that some identifiable quantum of education is a constitutionally protected prerequisite to the meaningful exercise of either right, we have no indication that the present levels of educational expenditures in Texas provide an education that falls short,” Powell wrote.

However, Powell suggested that the Constitution might be violated if “a state’s financing system occasioned an absolute denial of educational opportunities to any of its children,” or if the state failed “to provide each child with an opportunity to acquire the basic minimal skills necessary for the enjoyment of the rights of speech and of full participation in the political process.”

Besides Marshall, the dissenters were Justices William O. Douglas, William J. Brennan Jr., and Byron R. White. Brennan and White wrote separate dissents, though Marshall’s (joined only by Douglas) was most memorable.

“The court today decides, in effect, that a state may constitutionally vary the quality of education which it offers its children in accordance with the amount of taxable wealth located in the school districts within which they reside,” Marshall wrote.

“I, for one, am unsatisfied with the hope of an ultimate ‘political’ solution sometime in the indefinite future while, in the meantime, countless children unjustifiably receive inferior educations that ‘may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone,’” he wrote, citing a line from the landmark Brown decision that he had been integral to bringing about as a lawyer.

Looking to state constitutions and courts

After the U.S. Supreme Court decision, advocates followed Marshall’s suggestion and turned to the state courts. In Texas, it was the Edgewood district itself that was the lead plaintiff in a long legal battle resulting in the Texas Supreme Court declaring that the education clause of the state constitution required that “children who live in poor districts and children who live in rich districts .. be afforded a substantially equal opportunity to have access to educational funds.”

Albert Kauffman, a law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio who helped represent the Edgewood plaintiffs in the state case as a lawyer for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, discussed the federal and state litigation at a symposium on the Rodriguez case last month at the University of Virginia law school.

“So what did we get from Edgewood?” Kauffman said, referring to the 1989 Texas high court decision. “Basically, in my mind, we reversed Rodriguez in Texas, because we based it on the state constitution.”

“We convinced them that money does make a difference,” Kauffman added. “If you’ve ever worked in a school, you just have to realize that, that, if you have smaller classes, more teachers, more highly qualified teachers, more master’s-degree teachers, new curriculums, new computers, better buildings, better security, better playgrounds, it matters.”

Robinson, the University of Virginia law professor, said that the wave of state court litigation around the country since Rodriguez has helped advance the idea that “money well spent matters” in education.

But advocates have not given up a push to recognize a federal right to education. There was a wave of federal litigation in recent years that argued for such theories as a federal right of access to literacy and a federal right to education as a matter of civics to allow students to become politically capable citizens, among others.

In the literacy case, which stemmed from poor conditions in the Detroit public schools, a federal appeals court panel even appeared to give new life to a federal constitutional right to education with a 2020 ruling that centered on Powell’s language about how an “absolute denial” of educational opportunities might make a federal case.

The majority of a 2-1 panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, suggested that the question of a federal right had not been completely foreclosed by Rodriguez and that some later Supreme Court decisions supported such a reading. After the decision, however, the state of Michigan settled the lawsuit and promised to increase funding and improve conditions in the Detroit public schools. And then the full 6th Circuit court vacated, or set aside, the panel opinion, wiping it off the books.

The other federal litigation has also been unsuccessful.

Robinson, who has co-edited books on the legacy of the Rodriguez decision and the broader issues surrounding the federal right to education, said that given the more conservative makeup of the Supreme Court today, advocates are looking to Congress for a federal law that would guarantee such a right.

“It’s clear that our current Supreme Court is not likely to recognize a federal right to education,” Robinson said. “And so I think the only current avenue that we have available is for Congress to recognize the right to education.”

Honoring a father’s legacy

Eduardo Hernández, the superintendent of the Edgewood district, said in an interview that the history of the Rodriguez case permeates the district, which remains property poor and serves a mostly minority enrollment of 8,500 students.

The state legislation and legislative action have “made some adjustments to the funding of the schools,” but the Covid-19 pandemic and greater school choice options have introduced new challenges for the school system.

“The district has leveraged funds in terms of upgrading our buildings and our tech resources, but we are still woefully challenged in terms of being able to float bonds” to fund additional improvements, he said.

Patricia Rodríguez, speaking at the 2021 law conference in San Antonio, said she chose to become a bilingual dyslexia intervention teacher in the Edgewood district, a job she has done for the last 26 years.

Demetrio Rodríguez died of Parkinson’s disease at age 87 in 2013.

“I chose to stay there to honor his name, to honor his legacy,” she said of her father. “The students I work with are [low-income]students. They deal with a lot in their lives. … I want these kids I work with everyday to know there is something better that they can do for themselves.”

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