Education – A Fundamental Right? “Separate and Still Unequal” By: Bridget Elizabeth Harris

Education – A Fundamental Right?

“Separate and Still Unequal”




Bridget Elizabeth Harris


Unequal education is not a recent controversy in America. In fact, more than 60 years have passed since the Brown v. Board of Education decision; however, school systems in the United States are still “separate and unequal.”[1] While minorities are now provided with an “equal” opportunity to receive an education, the facilities, learning environments, and resources are far behind those of their wealthier counterparts in better neighborhoods.[2] Across the United States, vast efforts have been made to close the achievement gap between minorities and other races; yet this task has proven difficult – “below par achievement of minority students remains one of the most pressing problems in education.”[3]

For example, by age 2 there are already grave disparities between black and white children.[4] Specifically, “fewer black children demonstrate proficiency in developmental skills such as receptive vocabulary, expressive vocabulary, matching, early counting, math, color knowledge, numbers and shapes.”[5] This bleak reality inevitably continues throughout a child’s matriculation through school. Market research shows that every day 7,000 teenagers become high school dropouts, and African Americans are far more likely to drop out than their white counterparts.[6] Studies show that African Americans are more likely to drop out due to grade retention, unstable home environments, and the lack of successful role models within their immediate environments.[7]


Educational expectations are lower for black children, according to Child Trends a non-profit and non-partisan research center that tracks data about children.[8] Black parents, most of whom are less educated than their white counterparts, don’t expect their children to attain as much education as white parents expect.[9] Lower expectations become self fulfilling prophecies, contributing to lower expectation from the student, less positive attitudes toward school, fewer out-of-school learning opportunities and less parent-child communication about school.[10]


Based on these facts alone, one would assume education is a fundamental right — a right “that has been recognized by the Supreme Court as requiring a high degree of protection for government encroachment.”[11] However, the court in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez held the contrary.[12] The lawsuit alleged that education was a fundamental right and that those individuals of lesser wealth were a suspect class who were to be protected from wealth based discrimination.[13] The San Antonio Independent School District’s financing system, which was based on local property taxes, disproportionally impacted the education of those students in Edgewood, the poorer minority area. Their parents were not able to contribute the same amount of funds as their wealthier counterparts in primarily white areas of town.[14] The Court, in a 5-4 decision, reasoned that education was not implicitly or explicitly textually present within the Constitution; thus, the traditional standard of review was applied under the equal protection clause (rational basis).[15]  The Court also found the system did not deny educational opportunities to any child.[16]

While the Rodriguez court failed to recognize education as a fundamental right, Justice White dissented on the ground that even though local control of education might be considered a legitimate goal of a school financing system, the means chosen to effectuate that particular goal must be rationally related to achieving that goal.[17] However, the Texas system unconstitutionally discriminated against those parents and children who resided in poorer districts, because those districts had no chance to supplement state funds at the same levels as more affluent districts.[18]

It is apparent that public school systems across the nation are not equal and do not provide the same resources and opportunities, or even the same education for that matter. For example, in 1979, a federal judge ordered two segregated high schools to merge into one, creating Central High School.[19] Central High, located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was one of the premiere high schools and integration success stories in the South.[20] Although this was an unpopular move among many, “Central emerged as a powerhouse that snatched up National Merit Scholarships and math-competition victories just as readily as it won trophies in football, track, and golf.”[21] However, the decline of Central High hit when another federal judge released Tuscaloosa City Schools from the court-ordered desegregation mandate that previously governed it.[22] The court reasoned that because Central had successfully achieved integration, the school would be able to manage its own success going forward.[23] However, the court was sadly mistaken. Central High School is no longer the powerhouse it once was; instead, it is a struggling school that serves the city’s poorest students.[24] The school is also 99 percent black – separate and still unequal.[25] “In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.” While Tuscaloosa still has a long way to go, it is not the only city that still has separate and unequal school systems. For many students, a separate and unequal education is the bare reality of every day life.

While America recognizes the importance of education, America has yet to recognize education as a fundamental right. Making education a fundamental right would develop a nation that fully values equal education for all, and not just those from wealthier backgrounds. No matter a person’s socioeconomic status or wealth, they shouldn’t be denied a free “quality” public education. In America, citizens are granted a certain level of autonomy in which a higher education allows for more opportunities. It is no secret that an educated society is a stronger and more equipped society; however, without recognizing education as a fundamental right, the poorest individuals will continue to lag behind their wealthier counterparts in schools that contain little to no resources.




[1] Lindsay Cook, U.S. Education: Still Separate and Unequal, (Jan. 28, 2015),

[2] Id.

[3] Equipping Education Leaders, Advancing Ideas (2015),

[4] Id. at 1.

[5] Id. at 1.

[6] Choices Education Group (1985),

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.


[11] LII,

[12] San Antonio Indep. Sch. Dist. V. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 93 S. Ct. 1278 (1973).

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Nikole Hannah-Jones, Segregation Now, (May 2014),

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.


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