Education is critical to both personal and societal success. For individuals, education opens doors to careers, relationships and ways of understanding the world. For society, education results in a more engaged citizenry, economic and job market strength and an understanding of what is fair and just.
While it’s true that education offers powerful benefits, it’s equally true that those benefits are not accessible to all Americans. Nearly 70 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation in schools unlawful in Brown v. Board of Education, educational opportunities for people of certain races, classes and ethnicities are still lacking.
Why do we continue to see gaps in educational opportunity and achievement? Of course, there are many answers to that seemingly simple question, including various economic conditions, demographics and much more. But in this article, I want to focus on the legal system and how aspects of that system allow discrimination in schools to persist.
Limited Federal Protection for Education as a Civil Right
Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, states and school districts that receive federal financial support for schools are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin. Yet Title VI has limited ability to prevent education discrimination for at least three reasons:
The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted Title VI to mean that it only prohibits intentional discrimination, which is hard to prove.
Private individuals do not have a right to sue under the applicable Department of Education regulation designed to prohibit discrimination.
The Office for Civil Rights within the Department of Education tends to be underfunded, limiting its ability to enforce discrimination laws and rules.
Finally, federal law does not guarantee a right to education. The Supreme Court has said the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment does not guarantee a right to education. This leaves a portion of the American population open to the possibility of significant harm caused by those who want to limit their access to education.
State Laws Vary in Their Ability to Reduce Education Discrimination
Most states have laws that broadly protect students from discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, religion and disability. However, these nondiscrimination provisions are often just as limited as federal protections because many states interpret the state laws as consistent with Title VI. As a result, many state laws only target intentional discrimination.
Many states have enacted various laws prohibiting racial discrimination in specific aspects of education. For example, Minnesota has a statute specifically prohibiting racial discrimination in testing for special needs. Georgia, North Carolina and many other states have statutes outlawing discrimination in the public school admissions process.
Inconsistent state laws mean access to education varies from state to state. A Black child living in State A might have far fewer educational opportunities than a Black child in State B.
Working to End Education Discrimination
As a civil rights lawyer, I am passionate about finding ways to ensure equal access to education for students of all backgrounds. If you think your child is being treated unfairly by a school, reach out to me to discuss the situation. You can contact me for a case review or legal consultation anytime. My office is in Minneapolis, and I serve clients throughout the Midwest and Western U.S.
Joshua Newville is a Minnesota employment lawyer, civil rights attorney, and mediator. Josh litigates and advises on such matters as wrongful termination, whistleblowers, discrimination, police misconduct, and more. He offers paid legal consultations and free online case reviews regarding employment law and civil rights.