Friday, July 29, 2011

Education and the U. S. Supreme Court

Here's a look at some important education-related Supreme Court cases:

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in private businesses under the doctrine of "separate but equal" contending that laws separating the races were not in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and were a matter of public policy. Plessy v. Ferguson not only cemented the legal foundation for the 'separate but equal' doctrine, but paved the way for the Jim Crow system.  While the court found no difference in quality in things such as whites-only and blacks-only railway cars (the issue that started the initial case), the same could not be said for public education where facilities designed for blacks were wholly inferior. Southern states, however, refused to provide African Americans with equal facilities or funding after the Plessy decision. Racial differences in educational funding would persist well into the 20th century.

Lum v. Rice (1927):  held that the exclusion on account of race of a child of Chinese ancestry did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This decision approved the exclusion of minority students from schools reserved for whites.

The case was filed after 9-year old Martha Lum was prohibited from attending the Rosedale Consolidated High School in Bolivar, Mississippi because she was of Chinese descent. There was no school in the district reserved for Chinese students and she was forced by compulsory attendance laws to attend school. A lower court granted a request to force members of the Board of Trustees to admit Martha Lum; her father Gong Lum's case argued not that discrimination was illegal but that his daughter, being Chinese (not black) was incorrectly labeled 'colored' by authorities. After losing the case, the Board of Trustees brought it before the state Supreme Court which reversed the lower court's decision and allowed for the exclusion of Martha from schools reserved for whites. Gong Lum then brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court, however, affirmed the state Supreme Court's ruling. In an unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the Court found that "a child of Chinese blood, born in and a citizen of the United States is not denied the equal protection of the law by being classed by the state among the colored races who assigned to public schools separate from those provided for the whites when equal facilities for education are afforded to both classes."

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954): initially filed in 1951 by 13 Topeka, KS parents on behalf of their 20 children, Brown called for the Topeka school district to end its policy of racial segregation.  The plaintiffs in Brown asserted that the system of racial separation allowed under Plessy perpetuated inferior accommodations, services and treatment for black Americans. The District Court disagreed and ruled on behalf of the Board of Education citing the precedent set by Plessy and stating that  while segregation had a negative effect on African American children, it denied integration would resolve this issue. The reason: that black and white schools in Topeka were equal with regard to facilities, transportation, curricular and education qualifications of teachers.

Later taken to the Supreme Court, the case as it was heard combined five other cases: Brown itself, Briggs v. Elliot (South Carolina), Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (Virgina), Gebhart v. Belton  (Delaware), and Bolling v. Sharpe (Washington, D.C.). Decided on May 17, 1954, the Warren Court's unanimous decision held that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," thereby declaring segregation unconstitutional. Specifically, racial segregation was ruled in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, paving the way for integration. As a result of the Brown decision, all Topeka elementary schools were changed to neighborhood attendance centers in January 1956. This case also overturned the decision in Lum v. Rice. While the fight for desegregation continued long after Brown, this was a landmark decision in the civil rights movement.

Engel v. Vitale (1962): challenged public school prayer calling it an unconstitutional state establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment. Plaintiffs in this case were families of public school students in New Hyde, NY that the voluntary prayer to "Almighty God" contradicted their religious beliefs. They argued that opening the school day with a prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment  which says in part "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."  The governments of 22 states signed a brief urging affirmation of the New York Court of Appeals decision that upheld school prayer as constitutional. The American Ethical Union, the American Jewish Committee, and the Synagogue Council of America also submitted briefs, but called for a reversal of the decision and asked that school prayer be deemed unconstitutional. The Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs in a 6-1 decision, finding that government directed prayer in schools violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment even if the prayer is denominationally neutral and students may remain silent or be excused from the classroom during its recitation.

San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973): held that "reliance on property taxes to fund public schools does not violate the Equal Protection Clause even if it causes inter-district expenditure disparities. Absolute equality of education funding is not required and a state system that encourages local control over schools bears a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest."  The majority opinion in this case found that education was not a fundamental right that existed within the U. S. Constitution and was not subject to strict scrutiny. 

In 1968, the Edgewood Concerned Parents Association sued San Antonio ISD, Alamo Heights ISD and five other district schools, the Bexar County School Trustees and the State of Texas contending that the Texas  method of school financing violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The lawsuit claimed that education was a fundamental right and that wealth-based discrimination in education, created in the poor a constitutionally suspect class that was protected from discrimination. Particularly,  the schools in San Antonio has a long history of financial inequity such that the primarily white areas of town were able to contribute more per child than Edgewood, a low income, minority area. The case advanced through the court system with the Edgewood parents as the victors until 1972. In a 5-4 decision, the court found that education "neither implicitly or explicitly protected in the Constitution" and that Texas had not created a suspect class related to poverty. 

Plyler v. Doe (1982): held that a Texas statute denying free public education to illegal aliens violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because discrimination on the basis of immigration status did not further a substantial state interest. In Texas, revisions to states laws in 1975 withheld state funds for educating children who had not been legally admitted to the United States and authorized local school boards to deny enrollment to undocumented children. A 5-4 majority decision found that this policy was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment as illegal immigrant children are people "in any ordinary sense of the term" and therefore had protection from discrimination a substantial state interest could be shown to justify it. It also found that the Texas law was "directed against children and imposed its discriminatory burden on the basis of a legal characterization over which children can have little control" and that denying the children in question an education would likely contribute to "the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the costs of unemployment, welfare and crime." This case was decided together with Texas v. Certain Named and Unnamed Alien Children