Many state courts tackle inequality in education (Michael Rebell)

The author is a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Columbia Law School. He’s also lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the Rhode Island right to education litigation.

The US Supreme Court ruled in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) that “education is not a fundamental interest under the federal constitution.” Over the past 46 years, however, constitutional claims on this subject have been filed in 47/50 states, including Delaware. And overall, plaintiffs have prevailed in 60% of these cases.

Call them the “adequacy cases,” as the claim is often expressed in terms of a state constitutional provision that guarantees “some basic level of education – although the various states use different terms for doing so.”

Delaware Constitution, Article X, Section 1 - The General Assembly shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and efficient system of free public schools, and may require by law that every child, not physically or mentally disabled, shall attend the public school, unless educated by other means.

According to this column, courts getting involved in such cases have generally gone well beyond supporting a “minimal” level of education. Thus, “they have tended to insist that the states provide students an education that will equip them to obtain a decent job in our technologically complex society and to carry out effectively their responsibilities as citizens in our modern democratic society.”

So that should be great, right, as we celebrate Constitution Day? Not exactly, because plaintiffs have lost 40% of these cases. For example, Chicago (where the plaintiffs lost) spends 40% less per capita on public school students than NYC (where the plaintiffs won) does. In order to achieve a national solution, the Supreme Court should reconsider the Rodriguez case and get back in the game. And there are pending cases in Michigan and Rhode Island where the Supreme Court is being asked to do just that.

“On another Constitution Day, perhaps, “we will be able to celebrate the fact that all students in all parts of the United States do, indeed, have a meaningful right to an adequate education.”

Equating the quality of education with the funding providing may be misleading; many other factors enter into the quality of public schools and whether they do (or don’t) prepare young people to be good citizens. Consider, for example, the remarkable success of charter schools in NYC versus the abysmal results of the regular public schools. The secret of a charter school’s success? Parents, Robert Pondiscio, Wall Street Journal, 9/7/19.

“In a city where less than 40% of black and Hispanic children test at proficiency for reading or math, 90% of Success Academy’s students of color passed the most recent state reading test. Virtually all of them—over 98%—did so in math.”



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