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Landmark US Cases Related to Equality of Opportunity in K-12 Education

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*denotes US Supreme Court Case

School Finance

Serrano v. Priest (CA, 1971)

The 1971 case, also referred to as Serrano I, was the first of three cases called Serrano v. Priest.  Students of Los Angeles County public schools and their families argued that the California school finance system, which relied heavily on local property tax, disadvantaged the students in districts with lower income. The California Supreme Courtfound the system in violation of the Equal Protection Clause because there was too great a disparity in the funding provided for various districts.

*San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (TX, 1973)

Parents of students in a Texas school district argued that the school finance system in Texas, which relied on local property tax for funding beyond that provided by the state, disadvantaged the children whose districts were located in poorer areas. Unlike the state court in Serrano v. Priest, the Supreme Court found that the system did not violate the Equal Protection Clause after determining that the system did not intentionally or substantially discriminate against a class of people.

Robinson v. Cahill (NJ, 1973)

Prior to this case, the New Jersey public school funding system relied heavily on local property tax.  The New Jersey Supreme Court found that this system violated the state constitutional guarantee of access to a “thorough and efficient” public education system.

Levittown v. Nyquist (NY, 1982)

The New York school finance system also relied on local property tax, and several districts with low funding challenged the system.  The New York Court of Appeals recognized inequality in the per-pupil spending between districts but concluded that the disparity was not great enough to jeopardize the constitutional right to education.

Abbott v. Burke (NJ, 1985-2011)

New Jersey’s Education Law Center claimed that New Jersey’s school finance system both disadvantaged students in low-income districts and contributed to significant differences in the adequacy of education offered in poor districts compared to wealthy districts.  The New Jersey Supreme Court found the system unconstitutional and ordered that the state implement a program to ensure that funding in the “Abbott Districts” would be comparable to that of the wealthier districts.

Rose v. Council for Better Education (KY, 1989)

The Kentucky Supreme Court found the state school finance system in violation of the Kentucky constitution, formally recognizing adequate education as a fundamental constitutional right.  The Court ordered the state to adhere to seven specific goals in its education reform. 

DeRolph v. State (OH, 1997)

Ohio’s school finance system, which relied heavily on local property tax and contributed to disparities between wealthier and poorer school districts, was found unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court. The Ohio constitution requires that the state provide a certain level of education.  The court called for decreased reliance on property tax as well as other reforms, but the finance system was found unconstitutional several more times in subsequent cases DeRolph II and DeRolph III.

Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York (NY, 2001-2006)

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity argued that New York’s school finance system was unconstitutional because it failed to provide adequate funding to public schools, thus denying students access to the constitutionally-guaranteed right to a basic education. The Court of Appeals ordered the state to reform the system to ensure students would have the opportunity to receive an adequate education.


*Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Prior to this case, the "separate but equal doctrine" allowed public schools to deny admission to students based on race.   The Supreme Court unanimously found that segregation of public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause on the basis that segregation was psychologically harmful to black students. The case outlawed state-sanctioned segregation of public schools.

*Green v. County School Board (1968)

Although Brown v. Board of Education made de jure segregation, or segregation by law, illegal in public schools, public school districts were still experiencing de facto segregation.  This case found that "freedom of choice" plans, which allowed students to choose the public school they attended, did not adequately address the issue of integrating public schools. The Court declared that school districts must adopt realistic plans for active integration.

*Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1970)

Before this case was heard by the Supreme Court, a district court had ordered that busing be used to integrate public schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district.  The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the district court's decision.

*Keyes v. School District No. 1 (1973)

In one of the first cases involving segregation in the northern United States, Latino and African-American students claimed that their Denver school district was practicing de jure segregation.  The Supreme Court found that the district could not consider a school desegregated simply because it had both Latino and African-American students, as both groups of students were similarly discriminated against.  The Court also ruled that if a significant portion of the school district were shown to be de jure segregated, the rest of the district could be assumed to practice de jure segregation (as opposed to de facto segregation) unless the district were able to prove otherwise.

*Milliken v. Bradley (1974)

This case concerns plans for public school integration across districts.  A district court had ordered a system to integrate a segregated Detroit school district; this system involved busing students into and out of neighboring school districts that were not de jure segregated.  The Supreme Court found that this ruling was unconstitutional and specifically that integration could only be legally enforced in districts that displayed de jure segregation.

*Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1 (1981)

A Washington state initiative prevented districts from enforcing mandatory busing policies.  A school district in Seattle, which relied on such a policy to integrate its schools, challenged the initiative in court.  The Supreme Court found the initiative in violation of the Equal Protection Clause because it clearly targeted integration efforts and primarily disadvantaged minority students.

*Freeman v. Pitts (1992)

A school district in Georgia had been found to be segregated several decades earlier and ordered to desegregate by eliminating segregation in six specific areas.  After four of the areas had been accounted for, the district court supervising the school district ceased to supervise those four areas but continued to oversee the integration of the other two.  The Supreme Court upheld the district court’s decision, ruling that a court did not need to maintain control of a school district’s desegregation efforts in all areas if the district was compliant; it only needed to supervise the areas that had not yet been integrated. 

*Missouri v. Jenkins (1995)

A district court sought to remedy de facto segregation in a Missouri school district.  The court ordered a number of changes, including higher pay for teachers and staff that would be funded through increased taxes.  The Supreme Court found that the plan proposed by the district court was unconstitutional because the segregation was de facto and only affected a single school district.  The plan, which would have affected multiple districts, did not fall within the district court’s scope of power.

*Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District (2006)

This case concerned the student placement practices of two school districts.  The districts normally allowed students to choose which school they attended, unless a school was overenrolled. In that case, with the goal of racial balance within schools in mind, the districts looked to race as one of the primary factors in placing the student.  The Supreme Court found this practice unconstitutional.  The districts had either not been segregated or had already achieved integration, and the goal of racial balance was found not to be well-defined enough to justify using students’ as the sole factor in their placement.

Sheff v. O’Neill (2008, Connecticut Supreme Court)

The 2008 settlement of the Sheff v. O’Neill case was one of several settlements following a 1996 hearing.  Students in Hartford, Connecticut argued that the city’s schools were segregated and that minority students were not receiving the same resources as white students. District lines had been drawn such that students in the city were separated from students in the suburbs. The Connecticut Supreme Court found the districting unconstitutional and ordered the state to remedy the segregation. Over the following years, various settlements called for the creation of charter and magnet schools to increase racial diversity in Hartford.

Language Equity

*Lau v. Nichols (1974)

Non-English-speaking Chinese-American students in San Francisco claimed that they were being denied equal protection by the school system’s failure to provide additional English language instruction.  While the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, it did so by relying on Section 601 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act rather than the Equal Protection Clause; Section 601 protects against discrimination on the basis of national origin. This case paved the way for future decisions regarding bilingual education.

*Plyler v. Doe (1982)

A Texas law allowed the state to withhold school funds for undocumented children.  The Supreme Court found that this law violated the Fourteenth Amendment rights of these children because it discriminated against them on the basis of a factor beyond their control, and because this discrimination could not be found to serve a large enough state interest.

Gender Equity/Title IX (Focused on K-12 Only)

Force v. Pierce City R-VI School District (1983)

A female middle-school student was unable to try out for her school’s football team, as the tryouts were restricted to boys only.  She claimed that the school’s policy violated her Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights.  The district court ruled in the student’s favor, finding that the school offered no justifiable reason for preventing girls from trying out.

Sharif by Salahuddin v. New York State Education Department (1989)

The state of New York awards merit scholarships to high-achieving high-school students.  Prior to this case, scholarships were awarded based solely on SAT scores.  There was evidence to show, however, that female students received lower SAT scores than males, and that SAT scores were not adequate predictors of female student performance in college.  When female students challenged the practice in court, a federal court determined that the reliance exclusively on SAT scores discriminated against female students and ordered that the state consider high school grades in conjunction with SAT scores in determining scholarship eligibility.

Pfeiffer v. Marion Center Area School District (1990)

A female high school student was dismissed from her school’s National Honor Society (NHS) chapter upon discovery that she was pregnant.  The NHS faculty council cited the student’s engaging in premarital sex as the reason for her dismissal, claiming that this behavior was inconsistent with the values expected of NHS members. The district court found no violation of Title IX. However, the Court of Appeals found that the district court had ignored testimony that the NHS had not dismissed a male student who had also publically admitted to fathering a child while unmarried and ordered the district court to consider this evidence.

*Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools (1992)

A female high school student had been sexually harassed by a teacher.  Faculty and administration at the school had discouraged the student from pressing charges against the teacher, and the student sought monetary damages.  The Supreme Court ruled that the student could indeed sue for damages under Title IX.

Chipman v. Grant County School District (1998)

Female high school students who were unmarried mothers were denied admission to their school’s National Honor Society (NHS).  The NHS chapter claimed that the denial was based on the girls’ characters.  However, the court ruled that the chapter had violated Title IX by discriminating against pregnant women.


Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Children v. Commonwealth (1971)

Prior to this case, a Pennsylvania law allowed public schools to deny admission to students with cognitive disabilities.  The district court hearing the case found the law unconstitutional and required that the state ensure the right to free education for children with disabilities at an appropriate level for the individual child. 

Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia (1972)

Shortly after the PARC v. Commonwealth decision, several children challenged the District of Columbia public schools in court for both expelling and refusing admission to disabled students.  The schools argued that they did not have the funding or resources to provide an education to disabled children. The district court found the practice in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and ordered the school board to provide equal access to education for disabled students.

*Board of Education v. Rowley (1982)

A New York public school refused to provide a sign-language interpreter for a deaf student, claiming that her academic performance and progress demonstrated that she did not need one.  The student’s parents argued that the school denied her access to education at a level equal to that of her peers. However, the Supreme Court found that the school was providing the child with a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), guaranteed to children with disabilities under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA, later revised and now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)). The Court determined that the school was not responsible for providing a maximally beneficial education and that FAPE could be achieved even if the instruction provided only some educational benefit.

*Smith v. Robinson (1984)

The parents of a boy with cerebral palsy brought suit against his school district for transferring him to a school with inadequate resources.  Before bringing the case to court, the parents had gone through the administrative process detailed in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA).  The Supreme Court determined that since the EHA was designed to be comprehensive, disabled students and their families must rely only on the EHA in making such claims against schools.

*Honig v. Doe (1988)

The EHA (now IDEA) contains a “stay-put” clause, which states that, in cases where a school wishes to take disciplinary action against a student with disabilities, the school cannot remove the student from the program set in that student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) until the new plan has been agreed upon by the parents.  A student with an IEP who had been threatened with expulsion brought suit against his school for violating the stay-put clause.  The Supreme Court confirmed that schools must adhere to the stay-put clause, although they can take other disciplinary actions (e.g. a ten-day suspension) if they suspect a student’s behavior may be dangerous.

*Forest Grove School District v. T.A. (2009)

A student with learning disabilities switched from a public school to a private school after the public school failed to meet his needs as a student (a free and appropriate public education, or FAPE). A hearing officer ordered that the public school district reimburse the student for the private school expenses. However, the student had not been receiving special education at the public school. The Supreme Court ruled that the school could be forced to reimburse the student if FAPE had not been provided, regardless of whether the student had previously received special education.


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