Why the Supreme Court Matters for Education Rights

Given Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision to retire, teachers might consider reviewing a civics lesson on why the judicial system is crucial for the advancement of civil rights. Many people do not realize that most of what we have achieved or not achieved in the United States in terms of civil rights is because of the judicial system. I know I did not, until I took a civil rights class in law school and truly began to understand the strength and impact of the Court’s rulings. Take for instance, Brown v. Board of Education, which most of us know is the Supreme Court decision that ended segregation in schools. In law school, I realized this court case essentially ended all the recalcitrance and institutionalized racism in a post-Jim Crow Congress. Though it took years and a number of local court cases to enforce the decision, essentially, it was the courts that forced the change.

To summarize what I learned in high school government class and reviewed in law school, our government is founded upon the “checks and balances” of three separate powers: Congress, the lawmaking or legislative branch, the President, or departmental/administrative branch, and the Supreme Court, our judicial branch. This may seem a bit rudimentary, but it’s extremely important when we look at civil rights, and in particular, education rights.

The role of the court is to ensure that as a society and a nation we are living in alignment with the principles that are laid out in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Now we all know that has not always happened. Often times throughout history, laws that were passed by Congress were upheld because the justices themselves were narrow minded and unable to adjust their own moral compasses beyond the collective consciousness, but some of the biggest strides that we have made as a nation have been because this group of men and women were able to see beyond present social norms and morals and move us further in the direction of our principles of equality and justice.

In education, the Supreme Court ruled that all students have the right to education, no matter one’s legal status in the United States. Because of this ruling, students who are undocumented are able to attend our school system. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Court ended legally sanctioned segregation in our schools. This ruling changed the very makeup of our society. Time and time again, it has ensured the inclusion of non-Christian students by banning over-reaching forms of prayer at school. To this day, these rulings are protecting the school as an inclusive environment. I think back to high school, when my school banned the confederate flag because it was causing too much animosity towards students of color, including me. It was because of previous court rulings, which set the limits of what schools could and could not consider free speech, that the administrators were able to protect us. In contrast, there have been other times it has failed to set clear guidance to protect children. Last year, the Court refused to hear a case on a transgender student’s right to have an all gender bathroom. We can see then, how important the Supreme Court is for our children to truly have educational opportunities and create a safe and supportive environment.

This is why it is incredibly frightening that Justice Kennedy is retiring. Though Kennedy was also elected during a conservative administration, he was often a centrist voice on the Court, and was known as a swing vote. He has helped move our nation in the direction of equality and justice. But with the current administration able to choose a new justice, and the ability of the court to reverse previous rulings, many of our civil rights that we take for granted are at stake. I fear for the students in New Orleans who are undocumented and for students who face other challenges to education access, including disabilities, sexual orientation, or gender. I am especially fearful for students who are not Christian, and in particular Muslim students, after the Court’s recent ruling in favor of the Muslim ban and the Louisiana legislature’s continuous push towards school prayer. With this in mind, teachers in our schools must be aware of the power of the Supreme Court and to help students also understand that the judicial system is not just about criminal law. It also has given us certain rights and we must watch closely what happens with the Supreme Court to protect them.


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