Amdt14.S1. Educational Opportunity

Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Making even clearer its approach in de facto wealth classification cases, the Court in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez1 rebuffed an intensive effort with widespread support in lower court decisions to invalidate the system prevalent in 49 of the 50 states of financing schools primarily out of property taxes, with the consequent effect that the funds available to local school boards within each state were widely divergent. Plaintiffs had sought to bring their case within the strict scrutiny—compelling state interest doctrine of equal protection review by claiming that under the tax system there resulted a de facto wealth classification that was “suspect” or that education was a “fundamental” right and the disparity in educational financing could not therefore be justified. The Court held, however, that there was neither a suspect classification nor a fundamental interest involved, that the system must be judged by the traditional restrained standard, and that the system was rationally related to the state’s interest in protecting and promoting local control of education.2

Important as the result of the case is, the doctrinal implications are far more important. The attempted denomination of wealth as a suspect classification failed on two levels. First, the Court noted that plaintiffs had not identified the “class of disadvantaged ‘poor’” in such a manner as to further their argument. That is, the Court found that the existence of a class of poor persons, however defined, did not correlate with property-tax-poor districts; neither as an absolute nor as a relative consideration did it appear that tax-poor districts contained greater numbers of poor persons than did property-rich districts, except in random instances. Second, the Court held, there must be an absolute deprivation of some right or interest rather than merely a relative one before the deprivation because of inability to pay will bring into play strict scrutiny. “The individuals, or groups of individuals, who constituted the class discriminated against in our prior cases shared two distinguishing characteristics: because of their impecunity they were completely unable to pay for some desired benefit, and as a consequence, they sustained an absolute deprivation of a meaningful opportunity to enjoy that benefit.” 3 No such class had been identified here and more importantly no one was being absolutely denied an education; the argument was that it was a lower quality education than that available in other districts. Even assuming that to be the case, however, it did not create a suspect classification.

Education is an important value in our society, the Court agreed, being essential to the effective exercise of freedom of expression and intelligent utilization of the right to vote. But a right to education is not expressly protected by the Constitution, continued the Court, nor should it be implied simply because of its undoubted importance. The quality of education increases the effectiveness of speech or the ability to make informed electoral choice but the judiciary is unable to determine what level of quality would be sufficient. Moreover, the system under attack did not deny educational opportunity to any child, whatever the result in that case might be; it was attacked for providing relative differences in spending and those differences could not be correlated with differences in educational quality.4

Rodriguez clearly promised judicial restraint in evaluating challenges to the provision of governmental benefits when the effect is relatively different because of the wealth of some of the recipients or potential recipients and when the results, what is obtained, vary in relative degrees. Wealth or indigency is not a per se suspect classification but it must be related to some interest that is fundamental, and Rodriguez doctrinally imposed a considerable barrier to the discovery or creation of additional fundamental interests. As the decisions reviewed earlier with respect to marriage and the family reveal, that barrier has not held entirely firm, but within a range of interests, such as education,5 the case remains strongly viable. Relying on Rodriguez and distinguishing Plyler, the Court in Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools6 rejected an indigent student’s equal protection challenge to a state statute permitting school districts to charge a fee for school bus service, in the process rejecting arguments that either “strict” or “heightened” scrutiny is appropriate. Moreover, the Court concluded, there is no constitutional obligation to provide bus transportation, or to provide it for free if it is provided at all.7

411 U.S. 1 (1973). The opinion by Justice Powell was concurred in by the Chief Justice and Justices Stewart, Blackmun, and Rehnquist. Justices Douglas, Brennan, White, and Marshall dissented. Id. at 62, 63, 70. back
411 U.S. at 44–55. Applying the rational justification test, Justice White would have found that the system did not use means rationally related to the end sought to be achieved. Id. at 63. back
411 U.S. at 20. But see id. at 70, 117–24 (Justices Marshall and Douglas dissenting). back
411 U.S. at 29–39. But see id. at 62 (Justice Brennan dissenting), 70, 110-17 (Justices Marshall and Douglas dissenting). back
Cf. Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982). The case is also noted for its proposition that there were only two equal protection standards of review, a proposition even the author of the opinion has now abandoned. back
487 U.S. 450 (1988). This was a 5-4 decision, with Justice O’Connor’s opinion of the Court being joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices White, Scalia, and Kennedy, and with Justices Marshall, Brennan, Stevens, and Blackmun dissenting. back
487 U.S. at 462. The plaintiff child nonetheless continued to attend school, so the requirement was reviewed as an additional burden but not a complete obstacle to her education. back