Right to Education

school4cAttorney General Holder and Education Secretary Duncan remind us that Public Education is available to all regardless of immigration status. While this seems reasonable–education is essential for democracy and prosperity–one may wonder about the legal basis for the officials’ statement.  There are two Supreme Court decisions that are relevant: San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez411 U.S. 1 (1973) and Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982). Rodriguez was decided 5-4, Plyler 5-3.

In Rodriguez, the Court found that there is no Constitutional right to equal funding for schools–some districts may spend more than others–and that there is no fundamental Constitutional right to education. However, Justice Marshall, dissenting, wrote:

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. The majority’s decision represents an abrupt departure from the mainstream of recent state and federal court decisions concerning the unconstitutionality of state educational financing schemes dependent upon taxable local wealth. More unfortunately, though, 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. The Court does this despite the absence of any substantial justification for a scheme which arbitrarily channels educational resources in accordance with the fortuity of the amount of taxable wealth within each district.

In Plyler, the Court found that a state must provide education to undocumented children. Justice Brennan, writing for the majority wrote:

Public education is not a “right” granted to individuals by the Constitution. San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 35 (1973). But neither is it merely some governmental “benefit” indistinguishable from other forms of social welfare legislation. Both the importance of education in maintaining our basic institutions, and the lasting impact of its deprivation on the life of the child, mark the distinction. The “American people have always regarded education and [the] acquisition of knowledge as matters of supreme importance.”  We have recognized “the public schools as a most vital civic institution for the preservation of a democratic system of government,”  and as the primary vehicle for transmitting “the values on which our society rests.”  In addition, education provides the basic tools by which individuals might lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all. In sum, education has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society. We cannot ignore the significant social costs borne by our Nation when select groups are denied the means to absorb the values and skills upon which our social order rests. In addition to the pivotal role of education in sustaining our political and cultural heritage, denial of education to some isolated group of children poses an affront to one of the goals of the Equal Protection Clause: the abolition of governmental barriers presenting unreasonable obstacles to advancement on the basis of individual merit. Paradoxically, by depriving the children of any disfavored group of an education, we foreclose the means by which that group might raise the level of esteem in which it is held by the majority. But more directly, “education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society.”  Illiteracy is an enduring disability. The inability to read and write will handicap the individual deprived of a basic education each and every day of his life. The inestimable toll of that deprivation on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the individual, and the obstacle it poses to individual achievement, make it most difficult to reconcile the cost or the principle of a status-based denial of basic education with the framework of equality embodied in the Equal Protection Clause.

Justice Marshall, concurring, wrote:

While I join the Court opinion, I do so without in any way retreating from my opinion in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973) (dissenting opinion). I continue to believe that an individual’s interest in education is fundamental, and that this view is amply supported “by the unique status accorded public education by our society, and by the close relationship between education and some of our most basic constitutional values.” Furthermore, I believe that the facts of these cases demonstrate the wisdom of rejecting a rigidified approach to equal protection analysis, and of employing an approach that allows for varying levels of scrutiny depending upon “the constitutional and societal importance of the interest adversely affected and the recognized invidiousness of the basis upon which the particular classification is drawn…..”

Chief Justice Burger, dissenting (with others) wrote:

… it simply is not “irrational” for a state to conclude that it does not have the same responsibility to provide benefits for persons whose very presence in the state and this country is illegal as it does to provide for persons lawfully present. By definition, illegal aliens have no right whatever to be here, and the state may reasonably, and constitutionally, elect not to provide them with governmental services at the expense of those who are lawfully in the state….

Thus Plyler was decided narrowly, the majority being unwilling to limit children’s right to an education for reasons that seemed inadequate–primarily the states reluctance to pay for it.

© William Hungerford – May 2014





About whungerford

* Contributor at NewNY23rd.com where we discuss the politics, economics, and events of the New New York 23rd Congressional District (Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Chemung, (Eastern) Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben,Tioga, Tompkins, and Yates Counties) Please visit and comment on whatever strikes your fancy.
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4 Responses to Right to Education

  1. josephurban says:

    All of these 5-4 and 6-3 decisions demonstrate one thing about the Supreme Court. It is, in the end, a very political institution. While justices like to claim they simply “interpret” the Constitution that is not so. They bring with them their beliefs, values, ideas, prejudices, economic interests and life experiences. Do Americans have the “right” to an education? i think so. It is one of those rights anticipated in the 9th Amendment. People have rights beyond those listed…..”The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”…as times change new interpretations are needed.


  2. whungerford says:

    Yes, Justice Marshall looked to correct injustice when he saw it and would look for a rationale, whereas Justice Burger wrote:

    “I would agree without hesitation that it is senseless for an enlightened society to deprive any children — including illegal aliens — of an elementary education. I fully agree that it would be folly — and wrong — to tolerate creation of a segment of society made up of illiterate persons, many having a limited or no command of our language. However, the Constitution does not constitute us as “Platonic Guardians” nor does it vest in this Court the authority to strike down laws because they do not meet our standards of desirable social policy, “wisdom,” or “common sense.” We trespass on the assigned function of the political branches under our structure of limited and separated powers when we assume a policymaking role as the Court does today….”

    Thus Burger would not correct injustice if in his view the law allowed it.


  3. BOB McGILL says:

    What Burger wrote is, that the Court has no authority to make laws only to enforce the laws. Therefore, injustice or not, the Constitution prohibits the court to correct it.


  4. josephurban says:

    Not to nit pick, but the Court does not have the authority to enforce the law. The executive branch enforces laws. The court interprets the laws. It decides whether or not, at this moment in history, a particular law fits within the framework of the Constitution. As times change, interpretations change.


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