by Richard R. Valencia. New York: New York University Press, 2008. 480pp. Cloth $49.00. ISBN: 9780814788196.

Reviewed by Anna Kirkland, Departments of Women’s Studies and Political Science, University of Michigan. Email: akirklan [at]


Richard Valencia’s primary goal in CHICANO STUDENTS AND THE COURTS is to correct the record of civil rights history that often fails to take account of Mexican American struggles for educational equity and to respond to the idea that Mexican American parents are indifferent to educational aspiration. His book is a highly detailed catalogue of all the relevant lawsuits about educational equality and Mexican American students, including not only school segregation, but also chapters on school financing, special education, bilingual education, school closures, the rights of undocumented students, higher educational financing, and high-stakes testing. Valencia discusses the cases any scholar of constitutional law knows well, such as SAN ANTONIO SCHOOL DISTRICT v. RODRIGUEZ (declining to add education as a fundamental right in a financing equity case from 1973) and the PLYLER v. DOE decision of 1982 (affirming the right of undocumented children to attend public schools), but also dozens and dozens of lesser-known but very interesting cases. There is also discussion of relevant federal and state statutes and ballot referenda. The strongest feature of the book is this scope and range, making it a useful reference for scholars and students interested in constitutional law, racial and ethnic politics, and educational rights litigation. Valencia’s book essentially extends the mental map of the classic BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION-focused view of educational equality: backwards and forwards in time, from the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and forward to the recent proliferation of high school exit exams across the country, and from an often-exclusive focus on African Americans and the civil rights movement to a broader view that includes the legal struggles of our largest minority group. I read about many important cases that I had not seen discussed elsewhere and was entirely convinced first, that the relative lack of attention to the Mexican American experience in the law is regrettable and merits correction, and second, that it is certainly incorrect to say flatly that Mexican American parents do not value education (though one could object to such a clumsy generalization without having read this book and still want to understand better why Latino students have the highest high school dropout rate of any group).

Valencia refers to his method in one chapter title as a legal history, and he devotes the Introduction to spelling out a theoretical framework for the book, drawing upon critical race theory, critical legal studies, and post-colonial studies. The book is historical in the sense of chronologically presenting all [*93] the lawsuits from the very first ones. Valencia organizes the chapters according to the types of cases, and then within each chapter he reviews the litigation and evaluates its success in promoting educational equity. By success, Valencia means whether the outcomes support his views of what equity means, namely integration, funding that does not depend on property taxes, closings that do not disproportionately affect minority schools, promotion of bilingual education, avoiding disproportionate diversion of minority students to special education, and repealing high stakes testing laws and relying on multiple criteria instead. He presents research in favor of these outcomes and uses critical race theory to point out that entrenched racism probably explains why many of these laws and policies have not turned his way.

But one disappointment of the book is its failure to plumb deeply into what is at stake in these disputes and to see how they are entangled and sometimes in tension. For example, Valencia points out in the school segregation cases that speaking only Spanish was often a reason to segregate students, a rationale he decries (pp.26-28). Yet in the discussion of bilingual education, he defends maintaining language rights and argues that assaults on bilingual education are racist (p.196). There is an interesting tension here between equity as integration and assimilation and equity as parity of cultures, and these cases present a unique opportunity to reflect upon it that Valencia does not take. Additionally, though Valencia refers to critical race theory as promoting alliances across minority groups, he reports without discussing moments in desegregation history in which Mexican American plaintiffs prevailed by insisting on their whiteness and by pointing out that cases upholding African American segregation were therefore inapplicable (p.50). In the RODRIGUEZ litigation discussion of wealth as a possible candidate for suspect class treatment, we get an enormous amount of detail about the process of the cases and a bullet-pointed summary of conclusions from the rulings, but no discussion of why income level is so contentious as a category worthy of strict scrutiny in American constitutional law (pp.91-103). These theoretical problems are much discussed at the intersections of public law, law and society, and political theory in political science, but this book does not offer much beyond explication of the cases themselves.

Valencia’s background is in educational psychology, and so there is much more connection to that literature than to any political science, public law, or law and society literature. Valencia’s aim is to explain the cases, and his attempts to use critical race theory, critical legal studies, and post-colonial theory remain as window dressing around a step-by-step explanation of how various waves of litigation played out. Once these theories are introduced, they reappear here and there to reinforce conclusions that racism is endemic to American society, that outcomes of cases are politicized and indeterminate, and that Mexican-Americans are a conquered people. The level of detail about the cases is exhausting and not particularly illuminating. There are dozens of block-quoted passages and tables that seem unnecessary and equally numerous bulleted lists without much narrative [*94] voice to contextualize them. For example, one table (p.234) presents a list of seventeen cases about undocumented students, along with the U.S. district court, the case number, the division of the Texas state court system, and the filing date. The endnotes are equally dense, but when I turned to note 138 on page 112 noting a sentence that characterizes a legal argument about an ad valorem tax, the note does not explain what an ad valorem tax is or why it would be unconstitutional in Texas, but instead goes on for several sentences about how the case name changed because the Commissioner of Education changed. When I looked it up online (there is no entry for the term in the index), I learned that an ad valorem tax is simply a property tax based on value and often assessed when the property changes hands and that Texas does not have a state-level property tax. If there was a previous discussion of the term in that chapter on school financing, I could not find it. So while Valencia uses lawyerly language (like “the instant case”) and gives a great deal of legal detail, in the end his presentation does not impose enough intellectual order to generate a powerful narrative. CHICANO STUDENTS AND THE COURTS would nonetheless be a useful reference for a scholar interested in the details of educational rights cases brought by Mexican Americans or in educational rights cases more generally.

BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

PLYLER v. DOE, 457 U.S. 202 (1982).


© Copyright 2009 by the author, Anna Kirkland.