by Paul A. Sracic. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2006. 176pp. Cloth. $29.95. ISBN: 9780700614837. Paper. $15.95. ISBN: 9780700614844.
Reviewed by Aaron Cooley, School of Education, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Email: aacooley [at] email.unc.edu.
The task set forth in Paul Sracic’s SAN ANTONIO V. RODRIGUEZ AND THE PURSUIT OF EQUAL EDUCATION: THE DEBATE OVER DISCRIMINATION AND SCHOOL FUNDING is a difficult one. This volume is one of a series of texts that seeks to introduce a signifigant case in the history of American jurisprudence and flesh out its cultural and political impact, as well as its constitutional legacy. It can be quite challenging to provide an accurate summation of the technical details of complex litigation while, at the same time, explaining the case in accessible terms for non-specialists.
Sracic manages to balance these goals in a masterful manner. In the preface, he relays that he uses RODRIGUEZ as an example in the courses he teaches. The text at hand reflects his immense knowledge about the events leading up to the litigation, the personalities and backgrounds of the major actors, the political effects on the nation’s educational system, and the legal consequences gained from years of its use in his classrooms. The volume proceeds chronologically from the rationale for why the case came into being to the effects of the case on present school equity litigation. Several sections merit particular consideration and analysis. Each of these sections will be examined in turn.
Sracic’s background work on the cases leading to RODRIGUEZ is significant. He discusses major cases relating to educational rights and cases that had an impact on the education of marginalized populations throughout the country’s history. Many of these are well known to readers outside the academy and legal profession, but other, less familiar cases, such as CUMMING, are of equal importance and deserve the attention Sracic grants them. He states: “in 1899, in the case of CUMMING v. BOARD OF EDUCATION, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge by a group of African American parents in Georgia when the school board cut off funds for a segregated black high school. The Court decided in favor of the school board” (p.9).
This case essentially gave the legal cover necessary to institutionalize the PLESSY doctrine in America’s schools that ostensibly already existed. Clearly, Sracic makes use of this background section to set up why the country’s educational system was so dramatically unequal in the time before RODRIGUEZ.
The next noteworthy section that adds to the knowledge of readers is the way in [*341] which the case came to be litigated. Here, Sracic relays how idealistic law professors and students put together a plan to challenge the inequalities they found in Texas’ educational finance system and waited for someone to take it up. Of particular concern for these actors were the ways in which districts raised money for schools. Sracic puts the distress this way:
In looking at how schools were financed, Coons noticed that property-rich districts had enormous advantages when it came to raising funds for local schools. A rich district could tax its property at a low rate and still have much more money to spend on local schools than a poor district with very high property taxes. Therefore, whether a student attended a well-funded school was to a large degree dependent on the property wealth of the district in which he or she resided. This was a form of inequality, he thought, that might have constitutional significance. (p.17)
This difference in the ability of communities to provide education to their children is at the heart of the social and political ramifications of RODRIGUEZ. Further, the above identification began to raise fundamental questions about educational equity and the connections between educational attainment and democratic participation as a citizen in the United States.
Further into the text, Sracic fills in the background on Justice Powell as it relates to educational rights and equity cases. This section is very informative for illustrating possible factors that might have shaped Powell’s views on the RODRIGUEZ case. Of paramount importance in this area was Powell’s own work in the governance of schools. Sracic relays Powell’s position on education, which foreshadows the outcome of the case: “Powell’s experience on the Richmond School Board led him to develop great affection for the idea of local control over the schools. . . . He did not believe that unequal funding led directly to unequal education. The link between funding and quality had never, to Powell’s way of thinking, been definitively made” (pp.66-67). This notion of local control is something that plays a large role in sorting out the elements of the RODRIGUEZ case.
Next, Sracic’s analysis moves from the background on the law and the players involved in the case to the actual decision. In this section, we can see that there was a stark contrast from the liberal Warren Court that decided BROWN and numerous other landmark cases to the much more conservative Burger Court that decided RODRIGUEZ. In many ways, the decision in RODRIGUEZ stands as a rejection of the Warren Court’s policy of extending rights outward to more citizens.
The Burger Court took a more limited view of its institutional power and was not interested in asserting itself into local matters when it did not see an explicit fundamental right to education in the Constitution. Sracic frames this crucial transition from the Warren to the Burger Court in the following manner:
Implicit in Powell’s speech was a criticism of the Warren Court. Indeed, in discussing RODRIGUEZ in his speech, Powell brought up BROWN v. BOARD [*342] OF EDUCATION as a possible precedent for a different outcome. Although the Court was surely right to order desegregation, said Powell, “there are—there have to be—stopping points.” RODRIGUEZ was that stopping point. (pp.112-113)
Of course, the RODRIGUEZ outcome did not end litigation on school equity. It simply changed the venue from the federal level back to the states. In the following passage, Sracic speaks to another aspect of the case that has had a palpable effect on the ways in which state equity cases have been litigated: “Justice Powell’s opinion declared that individuals do not enjoy a fundamental right to an education. In addition, the majority opinion announced that state classifications based on wealth were not ‘suspect’ in a constitutional sense. The result was that RODRIGUEZ removed a legal burden from the backs of the states” (p.141).
Many of the states that have seen school finance cases are well into their second and third attempts to remedy the inequalities of the resources available to run schools in their state. Yet, inequalities persist when one compares a poor urban area with a nearby wealthy suburb. Sracic sees the same evidence: “Across the nation, large disparities in the amount of money available per student still exist. In part, this is because of the holding in RODRIGUEZ denying a federal remedy in educational funding cases” (p.148).
Overall, Sracic’s volume is fair and objective in its discussion of the case and its participants. Yet, one cannot mistake Sracic as anything but a scholar committed to greater educational equity. This assertion is drawn out from the final section of text where he discusses his encounter with the namesake of the litigation. Sracic displays an appreciation for the struggles that were confronted in the case as well as a desire to relay the fundamental democratic moment when Mr. Rodriguez decided to seek redress from his government for what he saw as an unjust system. Sracic eloquently states:
There is a temptation to overly personalize a case like this to give it a more human face. I would like to think, however, that Demetrio Rodriguez is an apt representative of all the litigants. Like others, Demetrio Rodriguez was unwilling to accept a system that he thought was unfair. He – they – demanded that the state of Texas explain “why” this inequality existed (p.153).
BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
CUMMING v. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF RICHMOND COUNTY, 175 U.S. 528 (1899).
PLESSY v. FERGUSON, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).
SAN ANTONIO INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT v. RODRIGUEZ, 411 U.S. 1 (1973).
© Copyright 2007 by the author, Aaron Cooley.