San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez
Significance: The Supreme Court held that wealth was not a suspect classification and that education was not a fundamental right. Therefore, the Court used the minimal scrutiny test and concluded that the U.S. Constitution did not require states to provide school districts with equal funding for public education.
Like many other states, Texas financed its public schools largely through local property taxes. As a result, wealthy school districts were able to spend significantly more money on public education than poor districts. Demetrio Rodriguez lived in a relatively poor district in San Antonio, where per capita expenditures were about half those in the city's most affluent district. Filing a class-action suit, Rodriguez claimed that the Texas system of school finance discriminated on the basis of wealth and that education was a fundamental interest that the state should provide to all its citizens without regard to their ability to pay for it. By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court upheld the Texas system of finance. Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr.'s majority opinion employed the minimal scrutiny test, inquiring whether the system bore “some rational relationship to legitimate state purposes.” Powell noted that no claim was being made that poor children were being denied a free public education and that the state provided enhancement funds to maintain minimum standards for each school district. Taking all relevant facts into account, he reasoned that a system using local taxation promoted the state's legitimate interest in encouraging local participation in public education. In a long and memorable dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall insisted that the Court had previously recognized that certain unenumerated rights were fundamental and that Texas's system had a discriminatory impact on an identifiable “class.” In addition, Marshall argued that the use of a two-tier approach to judicial scrutiny was too rigid, and he advocated an alternative sliding-scale approach. The Court expanded the Rodriguez decision in Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools (1988), rejecting a poor family's challenge to a North Dakota school district policy that required parents to pay for bus transportation to and from school. Critics of Rodriguez sometimes had more success at the state level. In 1989 the Texas supreme court declared that the state's constitution required the legislature to provide relatively equal revenues per student for the financing of public education. Previous to this decision, nine other state supreme courts had issued similar rulings.