Betrayal of Brown: A recap of NCSD’s #RodriguezAt50 Twitter chat

San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the case that essentially approved school funding inequity, has been called one of the “most important SCOTUS decisions you’ve never heard of.” I was thinking about why/how it got this reputation during the #RodriguezAt50 Twitter chat marking its 50th anniversary, hosted by the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD) in partnership with the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA). 

This post is a recap of the conversation, including thoughts on how Rodriguez is remembered today. I read through as many of the responses as I could find at the hashtag and organized a few key reflections and resources below – that said, there was a lot, and it’s likely that I missed something great. For anyone who’s interested, I encourage you to search the hashtag or reach out directly to the good people at NCSD and IDRA. 

The significance of the case was apparent in the intros. As David Hinojosa writes, it was a devastating blow to those who viewed public education as preparation for democratic citizenship or economic mobility. 

Relatedly, Halley Potter of The Century Foundation and Zahava Stadler of New America pointed to Rodriguez as a turning point –pushing us away from a federal solution to funding inequity,  thereby turning one fight into 50 that played out differently in each state and setting up a false dichotomy between funding equity and school integration. This line of dialogue continued into the first question posed by NCSD.

How did the Rodriguez case shape the legal landscape around educational equity?

This exchange between IDRA and law professor Derek Black illustrates the mess that Rodriguez created. 

In this short thread, Ary Amerikaner  – who is launching a new organization called Brown’s Promise  – drew connections between Rodriguez and Milliken v. Bradley, another case with the worst-you-never-heard-of reputation. As she points out, Rodriguez marked a split in litigation strategies:

I was similarly thinking about the connection between Rodriguez and Milliken in response to the next question. 

How did racial/ethnic segregation, concentrations of poverty/affluence, and school district boundaries play into school finance in the Rodriguez case?

Derek Black put Rodriguez together with Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, CO to tell a similar story about how Rodriguez marked a retreat from Brown v. Board of Education. SCOTUS upheld “unequal” in Rodriguez, and it upheld “separate” in Keyes and Milliken. And, its shadow is long, as revealed in responses to the next question.

To what extent does continued reliance on local property taxes systematically deny students living in areas of concentrated poverty equitable and/or adequate school funding?

Bob Kim of the Education Law Center pointed out that continued reliance of local property tax forces states to make up the difference between high-wealth and low-wealth districts, though many choose not to pursue equity, often in violation of their state laws and/or state constitution. Meanwhile, David Hinojosa observed that local control arguments at the core of Rodriguez were “a farce”: diminishing local revenues were often outside the control of each individual district and, without supplemental support from the state or federal level, low-wealth districts essentially don’t have discretion to run their districts as they see fit. Others shared papers that explore how funding inequity intersects with racial disparities in contemporary American schools:

The next question returned to the relationship between Rodriguez and Brown

Was Justice Thurgood Marshall right? Did Rodriguez undermine Brown v. Board of Education?

And, Nikole Hannah-Jones summed it up pretty well:

Others agreed, calling Rodriguez an abdication of the responsibility that the court promised in Brown and noting that the court was wrong to separate race and class

Joshua Weishart, a law professor at West Virginia University, noted that the state-level effort following Rodriguez at least came with the benefit of forcing “better conceptions of educational equality & freedom.” He shared a paper that explores this concept in more detail. 

As the conversation wrapped up, we started to look toward solutions.

What would it take for all children to have access to diverse, well-resourced schools? What are the barriers to making this a reality?

In addition to the resources shared below, several participants shared recent work that charts a path for funding equity. Here are a few that I found in my review- The Case for a New School Finance Reform Agenda, as shared in this tweet:

And, David Hinojosa shared an Equity-Based Framework for Achieving Integrated Schooling, which is “designed to assist communities and 21st century schools in creating integrated schools and in identifying areas of need or support to ensure all students acquire the incredible societal and academic benefits of integrated schooling.” 

Similarly, the final question of the chat served as a space to collect materials for learning more about the case. 

If people want to learn more about Rodriguez and the link between school funding and segregation, where can they go?

Well, there’s a lot here. I’ll pick three for the sake of space, but please feel free to add anything else in comments or in the continuing conversation at #RodriguezAt50

  • IDRA Event and Podcast. IDRA was founded in direct response to the Rodriguez decision. Its original mission was to generate research on funding inequity in Texas in order to make the case in state court. And, it won that case! There are a lot of great resources on the IDRA website, including the recording from IDRA’s own Rodriguez event last week where IDRA’s President Celina Moreno continues the “betrayal of Brown” argument. IDRA also released an extremely informative podcast and summary of that podcast.
  • Education Law Center “Money Matters” Event. The Education Law Center recently hosted an event with leading school finance researchers Jesse Rothstein, Rucker Johnson, and Linda Darling-Hammond. They summarized the research demonstrating that…well, money matters for student success. For example, Rucker Johnson (also a leader in school integration research) has found that each $1,000 increase in student spending for 3 consecutive years leads to a full grade level improvement in math achievement relative to the achievement level of students in that same school before the aid increase. And, that’s true in every grade level and subject area that he studied. 
  • The Century Foundation Closing America’s Funding Gaps Report. This report and interactive map illustrates “the level of investment needed to lift up every student in the country that is currently falling behind.” It includes estimates for aggregate funding gaps between districts as well as per-pupil funding gaps, and it offers estimates for what it’d take to close the gap in one year or in a five-year process where funds are phased in over time. 

Rodriguez could have and should have gone the other way. It was a 5-4 decision, and 4 of the judges in the majority were appointed by Nixon. As I’ve written about in previous posts, Brown *also* could have gone the other way. Imagine if that had happened. After Brown, there were innumerable legal and political battles throughout the US, not unlike the 50-state scramble that ensued in the aftermath of the Rodriguez decision. School integration advocates would have then had to pursue state- and local-level policy changes without both the legal precedent and moral weight that came from the Brown decision.  

For Rodriguez, this alternate universe is reality. It’s left advocates to make different versions of similar arguments based on different state constitutions with differently constituted state courts and legislatures that all have timelines that are different versions of slow. It’s left children of color to believe they’re not worth investment, as stated explicitly in influential research of the time. It’s an abandonment of our collective responsibility to each other, in favor of preserving wealth for the wealthy. It’s perhaps why Rodriguez isn’t well-known and  why conversations like #RodriguezAt50 are important for understanding what the past can tell us about how we might build a better, more just future.

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