‘Common Law’ Looks at Educational Access and the Courts

There’s No Federal Right to Education; Professor Kimberly Robinson Explains Why
Kimberly Robinson

Kimberly J. Robinson is the Elizabeth D. and Richard A. Merrill Professor of Law at the Law School, and a professor of education in the UVA Curry School of Education. Photo by Mary Wood

November 12, 2019

This season of “Common Law,” a podcast of the University of Virginia School of Law, focuses on law changing the world. But in 1973, lawyers advocating for equity in education hit a snag at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case was San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, and the plaintiffs, from a relatively poorer district, challenged the state’s financing scheme and the substantial disparities in resources that they received when compared to a nearby richer district. They asked the court to find education a fundamental right and strike down these disparities under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

UVA Law professor Kimberly Jenkins Robinson, an expert on educational equity who is featured in the episode, says that the almost 50-year-old case created a roadblock moving forward, because it confirmed that there is no right to an education within the Constitution and thus foreclosed plaintiffs from suing about school funding in federal court.

“Scholars since Rodriguez have been arguing there should be a federal right to education,” Robinson says.

Not only did the appellees not convince the court to recognize such a right, but they also failed to convince the court that the state law that led to the financing disparity should be struck down. (During the 1967-68 school year, as the lawsuit began, the wealthy Alamo Heights district spent $594 per pupil, while Edgewood spent just $356 per student.)

Robinson is the Elizabeth D. and Richard A. Merrill Professor of Law at the Law School, and a professor of education in the UVA Curry School of Education. She says that despite the gains made by the celebrated Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, it became clear that desegregated schools did not guarantee equality. She adds, “All the states guarantee some form of education. … What differs is how the Supreme Court in each state defines it.”

After Rodriguez, lawyers did win improvements for students in some underfunded areas by making cases based on equity. Equity suits later gave way to a more effective strategy, she says — one that emphasized adequacy. For these cases to be successful, it was important that a body of research evolve that demonstrated that higher funding levels indeed translate to a better education.

"Research is very clear that low-income children need additional resources to compete on a level playing field with their more affluent peers," she says.

Robinson and “Common Law” hosts Dean Risa Goluboff and Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick ’06 elaborate upon the litigation and Robinson’s own proposal for creating a federal right to education.

Robinson is the editor of the forthcoming book, “A Federal Right to Education, Fundamental Questions for Our Democracy,” published by New York University Press. She joined the law faculty this year.

“Common Law” is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, YouTube, Spotify and other popular places you can listen to podcasts, including devices like Amazon Alexa. This episode was recorded at the Virginia Quarterly Review and produced by Sydney Halleman and Robert Armengol.

You can follow the show on the website commonlawpodcast.com or Twitter at @CommonLawUVA.

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