Professor Edits New Book on ‘A Federal Right to Education’

Kimberly Robinson and “A Federal Right to Education: Fundamental Questions for Our Democracy”

Photo by Julia Davis, Illustration by Warren Craghead

December 10, 2019

Professor Kimberly Jenkins Robinson has edited a new book that examines whether all children should be guaranteed a federal right to education.

A Federal Right to Education: Fundamental Questions for Our Democracy,” to be published next week by New York University Press, features contributions from constitutional law and education experts, including Linda Darling-Hammond, considered by many to be the top education scholar in the nation; Rachel Moran, former dean of UCLA School of Law; and Martha Minow, the former dean of Harvard Law School.

Robinson, who joined the UVA Law faculty this year, is also a nationally recognized expert on how federal and state law and policy can close educational opportunity gaps. Her focus includes civil rights and the federal government’s role in education.

The book explores arguments for — and some against — a federal right to education, potential pathways to federal recognition and what such a right might entail.

In Robinson’s view, federal intervention is a must because states have failed to address the educational opportunity gap for K-12 students.

“We set [children] up for failure, generation after generation,” she said.

She referenced an annual report called “Is School Funding Fair?,” which has identified 17 states that routinely provide fewer funds to their high-poverty school districts — defined as having 30 percent or more of school-age children living at or below poverty level — than their other districts.

Robinson noted that a group called The Education Trust has also found that high-poverty districts receive about $1,000 less per student per year nationally, while districts with high concentrations of students of color receive about $1,300 less.

“Because of that, you’re setting these districts up to be behind consistently,” Robinson said. “Now you might think $1,000 is not a lot, but when you multiply it by each child in a classroom, and then you multiply it by a school, then you multiply it across a district, you can see that those children are clearly being put at a substantial disadvantage.

“And there is a multiplier effect over the years a child is in school. You start out in kindergarten and continue to give them an inferior education, and by the time they get to high school, there’s really no way they can catch up.”

While some may argue there isn’t the political will to implement a federal right to education, Robinson’s own contributed essay advocates for a gradual approach in which Congress works with interested states to experiment, then implement new strategies. Under this incremental approach the federal government could fix legislative shortcomings before wider implementation and allay fears some states may have about autonomy by retaining a strong role for state and local governments, she said.

The ultimate goal is to ensure that every student receives an excellent and equitable education, including high-quality teachers and adequate funding.

The book includes an afterward written by U.S. Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia, chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. Other contributors include Jason P. Nance, Kristine L. Bowman, Eloise Pasachoff, Kevin R. Johnson, Derek W. Black, Peggy Cooper Davis, Rachel F. Moran, Carmel Martin, Ulrich Boser, Meg Benner, Perpetual Baffour, Joshua E. Weishart and the Southern Education Foundation.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that there is no federal right to an education in the 1973 case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. Robinson elaborated on the case during a recent episode of the UVA Law podcast “Common Law.”

Her first book, titled “The Enduring Legacy of Rodriguez: Creating New Pathways to Equal Educational Opportunity,” was co-edited with Professor Charles Ogletree Jr. of Harvard Law School and published in  2015 by Harvard Education Press.

Robinson is the Elizabeth D. and Richard A. Merrill Professor of Law, and a professor of education at the Curry School of Education.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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