Although the U.S. Supreme Court refused to recognize education as a fundamental right in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the Court in several other cases has emphasized the possibility that the Constitution might afford some protection for education. New litigation is attempting to fill that void. This litigation comes at a perfect time. Segregation, poverty, and achievement gaps are all rising, while state courts and federal agencies have recently retreated from enforcing educational equity.
New litigation, however, has yet to offer a theory of why the Constitution should protect students’ educational rights, relying instead on the fact that the Court has consistently emphasized the importance of education. Prompting a significant doctrinal shift to protect education will require more than laudatory dicta. It will require a compelling affirmative constitutional theory.
This Article offers that theory. It demonstrates that the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment specifically intended to guarantee education as a right of state citizenship. This simple concept was obscured by the unusually complex ratification of the Amendment. First, the Amendment required the assent of Confederate states that were no longer part of the Union. Second, Congress expressly indicated that it would not readmit those states to the Union until they ratified the Fourteenth Amendment and rewrote their state constitutions. Third, education was part of the deal: Congress permitted states to retain discretion over education but expected state constitutions to affirmatively guarantee education.
Through this process, education became an implicit right of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Citizenship Clause. As a right of state citizenship and consistent with historical practices and goals, this Article argues that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from partisan and other illegitimate manipulations of educational opportunity.
* Professor of Law, University of South Carolina School of Law.