Civil Rights Equity Justice

Jill Lepore: Is Education a Fundamental Right?

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Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard and a staff writer for the New Yorker, wrote this interesting essay, which appeared in the New Yorker on September 10, 2018. The essay explains the history of the Plyler v. Doe decision, which defined the rights of undocumented children to an education. This required the U.S. Supreme Court to weave its way through other decisions, because the Constitution does not include the word “education,” but other contemporaneous documents (the Northwest Ordinance) stress the importance of education.

The case is about to become a notable precedent, she writes, because it bears on important decisions today.

Some Supreme Court decisions are famous. Some are infamous. Brown v. Board, Roe v. Wade. But Plyler v. Doe? It’s not any kind of famous. Outside the legal academy, where it is generally deemed to be of limited significance, the case is little known. (Earlier this year, during testimony before Congress, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, appeared not to have heard of it.) The obscurity of the case might end soon, though, not least because the Court’s opinion in Plyler v. Doe addressed questions that are central to ongoing debates about both education and immigration and that get to the heart of what schoolchildren and undocumented migrants have in common: vulnerability.

Plyler is arguably a controlling case in Gary B. v. Snyder, a lawsuit filed against the governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, by seven Detroit schoolchildren, for violating their constitutional right to an education. According to the complaint, “illiteracy is the norm” in the Detroit public schools; they are the most economically and racially segregated schools in the country and, in formal assessments of student proficiency, have been rated close to zero. In Brown, the Court had described an education as “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” But the Detroit plaintiffs also cite Plyler, in which the majority deemed illiteracy to be “an enduring disability,” identified the absolute denial of education as a violation of the equal-protection clause, and ruled that no state can “deny a discrete group of innocent children the free public education that it offers to other children residing within its borders.” Dismissed by a district court in June, the case is now headed to the Sixth Circuit on appeal.

Plyler’s reach extends, too, to lawsuits filed this summer on behalf of immigrant children who were separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. In June, the Texas State Teachers Association called on the governor of the state to make provisions for the education of the detained children, before the beginning of the school year, but has so far received no reply. Thousands of children are being held in more than a hundred detention centers around the country, many run by for-profit contractors. Conditions vary, but, on the whole, instruction is limited and supplies are few. “The kids barely learn anything,” a former social worker reported from Arizona.

The federal district judge who ruled in their case was named Justice.

She writes:

[Justice] Justice skirted the questions of whether education is a fundamental right and whether undocumented immigrants are a suspect class. Instead of applying the standard of “strict scrutiny” to the Texas law, he applied the lowest level of scrutiny to the law, which is known as the “rational basis test.” He decided that the Texas law failed this test. The State of Texas had argued that the law was rational because undocumented children are expensive to educate—they often require bilingual education, free meals, and even free clothing. But, Justice noted, so are other children, including native-born children, and children who have immigrated legally, and their families are not asked to bear the cost of their special education. As to why Texas had even passed such a law, he had two explanations, both cynical: “Children of illegal aliens had never been explicitly afforded any judicial protection, and little political uproar was likely to be raised in their behalf.

In 1978, Justice Justice ruled in favor of the children. The state of Texas appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

As she explains in her review of important Supreme Court decisions defining the rights of students, the Supreme Court ultimately crafted a decision in Plyler v. Doe that assured the right of the children of undocumented immigrants to education while avoiding any commitment to education as a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution.

And yet its interpretation remains limited. “Powell wanted the case to be about the education of children, not the equal protection rights of immigrants, and so the decision was,” Linda Greenhouse remarked in a careful study of the Court’s deliberations, published a decade ago. For many legal scholars, Plyler looks like a dead end. It didn’t cut through any constitutional thickets; it opened no new road to equal rights for undocumented immigrants, and no new road to the right to an education. It simply meant that no state could pass a law barring undocumented children from public schools. But that is exactly why Driver thinks that Plyler was so significant: without it, states would have passed those laws, and millions of children would have been saddled with the disability of illiteracy.

The children who received an education because of this decision are now gainfully employed and are citizens.

This is an article you should read and a decision that you should be aware of.

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