Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF): School-Related Litigation
The only U.S. Supreme Court case that addresses school finance, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) directly affected the legal strategy that MALDEF would later use in school finance litigation. Although it was not a MALDEF case, Rodriguez was based on the legal theory that school finance was a Fourteenth Amendment equal access issue. However, the Supreme Court ruled that education is not a fundamental right under the federal Constitution. Using Rodriguez, the MALDEF legal staff refocused school finance litigation strategies using state constitutions and state courts to file equity finance cases in Texas and other states.
In 1989, MALDEF won a major school finance equity case when the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that because the state’s public school financing structure was unconstitutional, the legislature had to formulate an equitable school finance plan. After an intermediate appellate court in Texas reversed in favor of the state, the plaintiffs sought further review. On July 5, 1989, the Supreme Court of Texas, in a unanimous opinion in Edgewood Independent School District v. Kirby, reinstated the trial court’s opinion, thereby ordering the legislature to implement an equitable school finance system by the start of the 1990–1991 school year. Like a Russian novel, the Edgewood litigation continued until May 28, 1998, when the Texas legislature enacted a finance plan that offered property-rich school districts one of five voluntary options to redistribute wealth using a wealth equalization formula.
Rights to an education and educational opportunities are a major litigation area for MALDEF. In Plyler v. Doe (1982), the Supreme Court decided that an education statute from Texas violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; this statute withheld state funds for the education of children who were not “legally admitted” into the United States and authorized local school boards to refuse to enroll these students. Plyler confirmed that the Equal Protection Clause applies to all, regardless of whether they are citizens who are subject to the laws of the United States. At the heart of its rationale, the Court acknowledged that children should not have been denied the right to education based on the status of their parents. MALDEF has also litigated cases that prevent school systems from engaging in discrimination in public elementary and secondary education.
As the number of Latino students increases in American public schools, issues of educational equality, adequacy, and barriers to fair and equal education opportunities will continue to be a challenge for MALDEF. There are 41 million Latinos in the United States; they compose 20% of the K–12 student enrollment, include 5.5 million English Language Learning students (ELL), and compose 33% of U.S. children under the age of 18. These numbers suggest a drastic change in the American population that calls for transitional support and protection of the civil rights of a class of people.