Equitable access to a high-quality education has been a topic of education policy for quite some time, especially since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Specifically, plaintiffs have turned to state and federal courts to address inequities in school funding formulas under state law and the quality of education that students receive under the U.S. Constitution. In this article, we briefly explore both of these areas of litigation (school finance litigation under state law and quality of education under the U.S. Constitution), providing a brief historical overview and summaries of contemporary case law. Our goal is to help school leaders understand the relevant issues related to litigation and legislation.

The Right to Education Under the Constitution

Education is not specifically addressed in the U.S. Constitution. As a result, education is left primarily to the states. Nonetheless, given the significant role that education plays in society, plaintiffs have asked the courts to determine the reach of the U.S. Constitution as it relates to education. In this section, we discuss three important cases that address the fundamental right to education, literacy, and civic education. For further legal analysis of the fundamental right to education under the U.S. Constitution, see Black (2018, 2019) and Robinson (2019) in the references.           

A significant case from the 1970s, San Antonio v. Rodriguez, addressed the right to education under the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs alleged that Texas’ funding formula, which relied in part on local taxes, favored students from more affluent school districts and violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. The court determined that: “Though education is one of the most important services performed by the State, it is not within the limited category of rights recognized by this Court as guaranteed by the Constitution. Even if some identifiable quantum of education is arguably entitled to constitutional protection to make meaningful the exercise of other constitutional rights, here there is no showing that the Texas system fails to provide the basic minimal skills necessary for that purpose.”

Recent court cases have revisited the issue raised in the Rodriguez case in nuanced ways. In one such case, Gary B. v. Whitmer, the plaintiffs argued that the quality of education in Detroit Public Schools denied students their fundamental right to education, citing dismal conditions in some district schools. Although the district court dismissed the case, the court of appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Upholding the right to literacy, the court of appeals determined that “Education has long been viewed as a great equalizer, giving all children a chance to meet or outperform society’s expectations, even when faced with substantial disparities in wealth and with past and ongoing racial inequality.” Following the decision, the state of Michigan settled the case.

In a second contemporary case, AC v. McKee, students in Rhode Island argued that they were being denied a fundamental right to civic education, which they argued was critical to participation in a democracy. The students argued that civic education was not required and the civic education curriculum that was provided was inadequate. Although both the district court and the court of appeals dismissed the case, the court of appeals noted that the “Students have called attention to critical issues of declining civic engagement and inadequate preparation for participation in civic life at a time when many are concerned about the future of American democracy. Nevertheless, the weight of precedent stands in the Students’ way here, and they have not stated any viable claim for relief.” This case is noteworthy because the judge said that the students raised a significant issue but unfortunately, there wasn’t a legal remedy to address it, at least under the U.S. Constitution. Nonetheless, the case was a success for the plaintiffs for other reasons, including promoting awareness about the need to prioritize civic education in Rhode Island, and arguably nationally, given the attention the case received.

The Right to Education Under State Law

Because education is largely left up to the states, we have also seen significant litigation at the state level. State constitutions generally have provisions specific to education that require the state to provide some form of education. Clauses differ but some examples include: “thorough and efficient,” “uniform,” and “free” (Parker, 2016). To ensure that states fulfill these state constitutional obligations, plaintiffs have brought lawsuits arguing that state funding formulas fail to provide equitable or adequate access to the education mandated by the state constitution. For further analysis of how states fund public schools, see Baker, Carlo, and Weber (2022) in the references.

An early example of the right to education under state law is Rose v. Council for Better Education. In this case, the plaintiffs used Kentucky’s constitutional guarantee of an “efficient system of common schools throughout the state” to call out disparities in the funding that low-income school districts were receiving compared to wealthy districts. This case provided a textbook example for how states are bound to the language of their constitutions, emphasizing that a system of schools cannot be considered efficient if funding disparities create a gap in educational opportunity for “rich” and “poor” students in their respective districts. Based on Kentucky’s constitution, the plaintiffs argued that a quality education, not just education itself, was a protected right under the state constitution.

Additionally, Serrano v. Priest made use of California’s constitutional provision that “the Legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district” to allege that the mostly tax-based financial system for the state’s schools in 1971 was not enough to provide the necessary financial support to each school district’s students. With the court asserting that “the poor district cannot freely choose to tax itself into … excellence,” they ultimately placed a larger burden for funding on the state, rather than citizen taxes, to ensure that students received the education they were guaranteed.

Lastly, Abbott v. Burke argued that New Jersey’s constitutional guarantee of a “thorough and efficient system” was not met due to disparities between the resources wealthy districts received compared to underresourced districts, explaining that “in these poorer urban districts—these students simply cannot possibly enter the same market or the same society as their peers educated in wealthier districts.” For nearly 10 years, the New Jersey Legislature worked to create a new, more equitable funding plan until the court ordered the Legislature to give school districts equal, foundational funding for the 1997–98 school year.

Currently, Pennsylvania’s Court system is working through William Penn SD et al. v. Pa. Dept. of Education et al., originally filed in 2014. The case challenges the state’s constitutional guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” school system as the plaintiff school districts argue that their low-income areas are not receiving adequate funding to support their students. As this case continues, the prior examples of early case law will serve as an important testament to how states can be held accountable for the educational outcomes of students based on funding, exemplifying that the right to education holds merit under state law.


Plaintiffs have turned to both federal and state courts to address educational inequities in education. Although the court reached a notable decision in Gary B. at the federal level, we will likely see more litigation at the state level based on arguments similar to those presented in Gary B. and AC v. McKee (e.g., the right to literacy or civic education), particularly given that the composition of the current Supreme Court makes it unlikely that these arguments will persuade a majority of the Justices.

Maria M. Lewis, JD, PhD, is an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University. She teaches courses on education law and leadership for equity, diversity, and inclusion. Gabriella Achampong is a junior at Pennsylvania State University, where she is studying education and public policy, with a specific interest in equity and civil rights.


Abbott v. Burke, 119 N.J. 287 (June 1990).

A.C. v. McKee, 23 F.4th 37 (1st Cir., 2022).

Baker, B., Di Carlo, M., & Weber, M. (2022). The adequacy and fairness of state school finance systems. The Albert Shanker Institute, University of Miami School of Education and Human Development, and Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. schoolfinancedata.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/SFID2023_annualreport.pdf

Black, D. W. (2018). The constitutional compromise to guarantee education. Stanford
Law Review
. 70(3), 735–838.

Black, D. W. (2019). The fundamental right to education. Notre Dame Law Review. 94(3), 1059–1114.

Gary v. Whitmer, 957 F. 3d 616 (6th Cir. 2020).

Parker, E. (2016, March). Constitutional obligations for public education. Education Commission of the States. www.ecs.org/wp-content/uploads/2016-Constitutional-obligations-for-public-education-1.pdf

Robinson, K. J. (Ed.). (2019). A federal right to education: Fundamental questions for our democracy. New York University Press.

Rose v. Council for Better Education, 790 S.W.2d. 186 (Ky. 1989).

San Antonio v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973).

Serrano v. Priest, 5 Cal. 3d 584 (1971) (Serrano I).

William Penn School District v. PA Department of Education, 642 Pa. 236 (2017).