Common or public education has traditionally been a state and local concern. In the landmark 1954 desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court recognized that education is “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” While all fifty state constitutions contain variously worded provisions recognizing their responsibility to provide public education, the U.S. Constitution does not refer to schools or include any article pertaining to education. In San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the nation’s highest court concluded that public education is not a federal fundamental right, but rather a function of the state, reserved for the states by the Tenth Amendment.
Even after the Court’s decision in Rodriguez, debate over whether education is a fundamental right persisted. Plyler v. Doe revisited the issue when deciding whether the state of Texas violated the equal protection rights of undocumented children by denying them admittance into public school. The Court in Plyler held that education, while not a fundamental right, is an important state interest and that no rational basis exists to provide it to some children and deny it to others solely based on their immigration status.
Lack of any constitutionally expressed federal jurisdiction over education has not prevented the federal government from intervention in educational issues. It has always had sole responsibility for the Bureau of Indian Affairs–funded school system established on or near Indian reservations and trust lands throughout the nation. In mandating other educational concerns, Congress has utilized the authority of both the Spending and the Commerce Clauses. Under the Spending Clause, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted, requiring significant state action to equalize educational opportunities, but only for the disabled.
Other examples of federal involvement in state public education include the desegregation requirements in Brown and the antidiscrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibit discrimination based upon race, color, or national origin in any program receiving federal financial assistance. Subsequently, the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974 forbade states from denying “equal educational opportunity” to individuals based on “race, color, sex, or national origin.” Court cases relying on the federal constitutional rights of free speech, as well as free exercise and nonestablishment of religion, have had a significant impact on the day-to-day functioning of public schools.
In 2001, the federal government made a significant foray into the educational policy sphere when the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed by President Bush. NCLB reauthorized and amended the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), requiring all schools to set high standards, assess students for attainment of those standards, and make adequate yearly progress at the risk of losing federal funding. With more and more federal legislative incursions into public education, the question of whether a federal fundamental right to public education exists may continue to fall under court scrutiny.
- Patterson, J. T. (2001). Brown v. Board of Education: A civil rights milestone and its troubled legacy. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294 (1955). Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000. Equal Education Opportunity Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1703 et seq.
- Imber, M., & Van Geen, T. (2001). A teacher’s guide to education law. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§1400 et seq. No Child Left Behind Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1041 et seq.
- Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982).
- San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973).
- Zirkel, P. A., Richardson, S. N., & Goldbert, S. S. (1995). A digest of Supreme Court decisions affecting education (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.
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