5 Court Cases That Changed Education for Black Students

This post was originally published on Word In Black

By: Aziah Siid

For generations, Black students, their parents and education advocates have used the US court system to create equal opportunity for Black students in US public schools. The battle to bring equal funding to poor and Black students has been happening since the 1800s, when a 5-year-old Black girl sued to get the same education as her white peers. Some of them haven’t been successful, but all of them represent progress.

From ending racial segregation to requiring equitable funding for lower income districts, here are a few court cases that directly impacted Black students over the course of time.

1. Roberts v. The City of Boston (1894)

Establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine in public education, the case stems from Boston’s decision to segregate its schools, which had been integrated following the city’s abolition of slavery in the 1700s. Black parents complained white teachers and students harassed and mistreated their children. However, the newly segregated schools for Black children quickly fell into disrepair, and Black parents argued their taxes were funding better white schools that their children could not attend.

Benjamin Roberts, father of 5-year-old Sarah Roberts, sued the city to enroll her in an all-white school that had better resources than the Black school to which she had been assigned. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ultimately sided with the city, ruling that segregated schools didn’t violate the child’s rights. The case, and arguments on both sides, set the stage for Plessy v. Ferguson, a case in which the US Supreme Court found that state-mandated segregation laws did not violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

2. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954)

In arguably the most well-known court case regarding desegregation, the landmark Supreme Court decision changed the trajectory of  public education for generations to come. The high court found that the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson did violate the 14th Amendment rights of plaintiff Darlene Brown, a Topeka, Kansas schoolgirl.

The decision signaled the end of legalized racial segregation in U.S. schools, opening doors for trail-blazing Black students to integrate previously white schools, like Ruby Bridges, the Little Rock Nine, and countless others. But it also triggered the “massive resistance” campaign, in which whites in Southern states chose to shut down schools — and create whites-only private academies using public funds — rather than admit Black students.

3. Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York (1992)

In 1982, when an appellate court ruled that New York public-school students were entitled to a “sound, basic education,” the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a nonprofit  advocacy organization, sued the state. It argued that  the school finance system failed to provide adequate funding for New York City public schools. A lower court agreed, but the state appellate court reversed that decision. In 2003,  however, the New York Court of Appeals ordered the state to fix inadequate education funding in New York City, and appointed a panel to make recommendations.

The case was among the first to challenge school funding formulas, arguing that a state was denying students their right to a “sound, basic education” by withholding or unfairly allocating resources.

4. Abbott v. Burke (1981)

Hailed as perhaps the most important case for poor schoolchildren since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the case stems from a lawsuit by the New Jersey Education Law Center, which represents students in  school districts like Camden and Newark, among  the poorest in the United States. At issue was the ELC’s claim that the state’s school finance system both disadvantaged students in low-income districts and contributed to stark differences between education offered in poorer and  wealthier districts — and that the poorer districts could not meet the needs of their students..

The New Jersey Supreme Court found the state’s funding system unconstitutional and ordered officials to take steps to  ensure that funding of poorer districts is comparable to those of wealthier districts. That meant sweeping upgrades,  including adequate K-12 foundational funding, universal preschool programs for at-risk students and school-by-school reform of curriculum and instruction.

5. Gary B. vs Synder (2020)

In a 2016 lawsuit, seven Detroit public school students claimed then-Gov. Rick Snyder denied them a basic education because, among other things, they weren’t taught to read. That lack of a critical educational building block, they alleged, stemmed in part from poor building conditions, a textbook shortage, unqualified teachers and lack of other learning materials.

The case was initially dismissed in 2018, but resurrected on the grounds of a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that all students are entitled to an education that is at least minimally adequate — and that failure to do so is a violation of their constitutional rights. While the high court’s ruling didn’t address the vast inequities between funding for rich and poor schools, it set a minimum standard that all states must meet in public education: providing kids with “a chance at foundational literacy.”

Since the ruling, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised the Detroit School District some $94.4 million to make upgrades — much-needed funds districts can finally reap after a long hard fight.


About Post Author

From the Web

Skip to content