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The new threat to good schooling for minority Americans

The right might be targeting a seminal Supreme Court case that protects educational fairness

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) listens to former president Donald Trump as they speak during a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border wall on June 30, 2021, in Pharr, Tex. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., generated international attention to the vulnerability of children, particularly children of color, in a state with few gun regulations. But gun violence is not the only threat students of color are facing in the classroom.

Shortly after the May leak of the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Womens Health Organization, the case that overturned Roe v. Wade, Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Tex.) wondered whether Plyler v. Doe — the landmark decision that requires states to offer public education free of charge to all children, including children of undocumented migrants could be next.

In challenging Plyler, Abbott threatened to unravel more than a century’s worth of efforts to provide educational opportunity to the nation’s children and specifically those from Black, Latino and Indigenous communities. But rather than a new assault, Abbott’s remarks are part of a tradition of systemic racism designed to harm communities of color and undermine court rulings that have continually sided with parents fighting for educational justice.

From the earliest days of the country, there were debates about who was worthy of an education and what ends an education should serve. Race played a critical role in how those questions were answered, producing anti-literacy laws preventing free and enslaved Black people from learning to read and boarding schools that separated Indigenous children from their families, cultures and languages.

Where Latino children were concerned, fewer than 18 percent of children between 5 and 17 were enrolled in public schools during the early years of the 20th century, but by 1930, the number increased to 50 percent. Yet, enrolling in public schools did not mean attending the same schools as White children. In California, for example, increased immigration from Mexico and increased labor needs in the citrus industry resulted in most school districts placing Mexican schoolchildren into separate schools from their White counterparts. Such was the experience for many families, until a group of parents chose to fight back.

In 1944, the Mendez family moved to Orange County to lease a farm from a Japanese-American family who had been forced into an internment camp. Despite the proximity of the 17th Street School to their home, the White-dominated Westminster Elementary School district denied 9-year-old Sylvia Mendez and her brothers entrance to the school because of their Mexican appearance and ancestry. Instead, the district forced them, and others like them, into a separate and unequal school across town.

The Mendez kids were not alone: By the 1940s, as many as 80 percent of Spanish-speaking children in places such as Orange County attended intentionally segregated schools that were not only often far from their homes but also starved of resources.

But the Mendez’s cousins — who happened to have fairer skin and a French surname — were admitted to the 17th Street school, prompting Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez to file a federal lawsuit, along with similarly aggrieved parents, in 1946. The resulting case, Mendez v. Westminster, led to the end of formal segregation in California. In an amicus brief in support of Mendez, Thurgood Marshall, who would argue Brown v. Board of Education, said: “Our Democracy is founded in an enlightened citizenry. It can only function when all of its citizens, whether of a dominant or of a minority group, are allowed to enjoy the privileges and benefits inherent in our Constitution.”

Two years later, another group of Mexican American professionals and civil rights advocates filed suit in Texas on behalf of Mexican American children which led to Delgado v. Bastrop Independent School District and resulted in the discontinuance of segregation according to language difference.

The momentum of these cases laid the legal and cultural groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education, led by yet another set of parents, Oliver and Leola Brown. The Browns utilized the courts to secure access for their daughter, Linda, to attend the school of their choosing. Linda Brown said that “had it not been for this walking, you know, to school and going so far to school,” she and her husband might never have challenged the discrimination their daughter faced. Like Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, the Browns just wanted to send their child to school closer to home.

Together, these cases brought about important legal victories. But that was only the beginning of the pursuit of educational justice through the courts because policymakers continued to enact policies to evade integration. Their tactics included facilitating residential segregation — which effectively segregated schools — and enacting school closure laws that led to the creation of private academies for White children and gave school boards plausible deniability.

Policymakers facilitated White flight to the suburbs, for example, with the GI Bill and FHA loans that effectively restricted access of Black families and others from those homes and schools, and numerous districts in states such as Virginia and Alabama closed their schools to stop federally mandated integration.

So parents of color kept fighting. In 1968, Jose Cisneros led the charge against his children’s school district for failing to fix its buildings in Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD, which came to ensure that the principles of Brown applied to Mexican American children. In 1969, Black and Latino parents in Denver challenged the segregation of the city’s schools and, in Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, the Supreme Court sided with them, holding that the evidence against the school district implicated it in facilitating racial discrimination. And in 1972, Mexican American parents in New Mexico, through Serna v. Portales Municipal Schools, ensured that having a Spanish surname didn’t prevent one from getting an education.

Building upon this work, in the early 1980s, a group of undocumented migrant families filed suit to test the constitutionality of a Texas law that prohibited funding the education of noncitizens.

And in Plyler v. Doe, the very case Abbott mused about, the Supreme Court ruled the Texas law unlawfully punished minors who weren’t responsible for their actions, imposed a severe burden on a vulnerable group and ignored the lifetime of hardship a lack of education would levy on the children of undocumented migrants.

The ruling assured children of every race, color, creed and identity the opportunity to obtain an education in Texas. And as legal scholar Justin Driver noted, the court’s ruling in Plyler prevented the Texas measure from becoming the dominant approach nationwide.

Abbott’s comments on Plyler aren’t surprising, given the way that states have long labored to evade the responsibility to educate all children.

But the case hammers home that due process and equal protection apply to everyone in America — a principle that is central to combating anti-immigrant, racial profiling laws that discriminate so brutally against Black, Latino and immigrant communities. It also reminds us that families of color have long led the fight for social justice and educational equity, even as White policymakers and politicians routinely have sought to stand in their way.

But Abbott’s comments are just one more example that the fight for educational equity is far from complete.