The racist idea that changed American education

How a landmark Supreme Court decision was shaped by the racist idea that poor children can’t learn.

This story was originally published on Feb. 22 by Vox.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering public education in communities across America. Subscribe to our free newsletter to keep up with how public education is changing.

Almost exactly 50 years ago, Alex Rodriguez got his 15 minutes of fame when he was in sixth grade.

Now 61, Rodriguez recalls when news media swarmed his family’s small home in west San Antonio in 1973. “There was everybody and their grandma as far as reporters all over the place,” he said. “At the school, at the house, at the neighborhood. They were just going crazy.” The TV crews had cameras, he recalls, that “were bigger than a bazooka.”

In a way, the reporters were there because of him. In 1968, his father, Demetrio, had sued the state of Texas for underfunding his son’s school district, which was predominantly made up of low-income and Mexican American families. Alex recalls the third floor of his elementary school being condemned; when it rained, water would pour down the stairs. Three or four students shared one textbook.

The lawsuit, filed by Rodriguez and a number of other parents, remarkably, had reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Civil rights groups were hoping — and some reporters expecting — it to be the “Brown vs. Board of Education of the 1970s,” as a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal put it.

But as the case wound its way through federal court, a nascent counter-idea was blossoming: Maybe, an influential cadre of social scientists claimed, it didn’t matter how much money schools spent. In fact, maybe schools weren’t actually a key factor in what students learned.

Maybe — most insidiously — poor children of color weren’t likely to succeed in school no matter how well-funded their schools. This idea was spreading, appearing in academic journals and publications like the Atlantic and the Washington Post. A New York Times news article from 1970 included this startling line: “In the case of a slum child,” it read, citing supposedly cutting-edge research, “his chances of learning to read were quite limited, even though large amounts of money might be devoted to his education.”

Fifty years ago this year, the Supreme Court cited some of that same research to rule against the Rodriguez family. The racist notion that children in poverty could not benefit from additional or even equal resources may well have influenced the court’s decision.

“The poor people have lost again, not only in Texas but in the United States, because we definitely need changes in the educational system,” Demetrio Rodriguez told one of the reporters that Alex recalls descending on their home. The media soon left, and Alex went back to the same underfunded school. “It was famous for a day or two — then that was it,” he says now.

Admittedly, the legal and practical merits of the Court’s 1973 decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez are complex and up for legitimate debate. In the long run, the ruling was not the devastating blow to funding equality efforts that many advocates feared. Funding gaps due to property taxes have narrowed or fully closed, in part because state courts stepped in after the Supreme Court stepped aside.

Still today, thanks to the Rodriguez case, the Constitution does not protect the right to an education.

But that often took decades, and the decision had a lasting impact. It left multiple generations of low-income children, like Alex Rodriguez, in schools with lesser funding. This is particularly troubling because more recent evidence has found a meaningful link between spending and student success.

Still today, thanks to the Rodriguez case, the Constitution does not protect the right to an education. A recent effort by students in Detroit to garner some federal right to quality, adequately funded schools failed. For half a century, the decision has effectively closed federal courts to students and families seeking a better education.

On a Thursday morning in May 1968, hundreds of students walked out of Edgewood High School on the west side of San Antonio. They held signs: “‘Every student in America deserves a great education. Where is ours?” “We want a gym not a barn.” “Better library, better teachers, better schools.” They marched to the superintendent’s office with a list of demands. It was a sign of the civil rights-infused times — “the era of rising expectations among minority groups like the Mexican American youngsters” of the city, as the local San Antonio Express put it.

A number of parents had joined in the protest, and soon organized the Edgewood Concerned Parents Association. “When I heard kids saying they didn’t think they could make it in college because of their high school education, then that’s when I decided it was time to do something,” one parent said.

Demetrio Rodriguez — a sheet metal worker, military veteran, and then a father of three young boys — was among those frustrated parents. The group initially targeted their ire at district officials, concerned that they were self-dealing or hoarding money. But then they met with a local lawyer, Arthur Gochman, who pointed out that the district got dramatically less funding than others in the area. Maybe the schools’ problems stemmed not from mismanagement of money, but a lack of it.

Since the advent of public education in America, property taxes had been schools’ biggest source of funding. And because property values varied dramatically from place to place, school funding did too. (Today, state funding has eclipsed local dollars for schools, reducing or even eliminating gaps in dollars due to property taxes. But disparities still exist in some places and funding often isn’t targeted to the highest-needs students. )

Nationally, the correlation between property wealth and poverty was not perfect — in some places, especially big cities, expensive property sat next to deep poverty. But the link was strong enough to create large funding gaps between school districts. In 1972, the country’s most affluent districts were spending 40% more per student than the highest-poverty districts.

The San Antonio area was a perfect example. Alamo Heights — an affluent northern part of the city, which had kept Black and Hispanic residents out through racially restrictive covenants — had nearly 10 times the taxable property value as the Edgewood school district, which served mostly low-income, Mexican American children.

The consequences, then, were preordained, and state and federal funds couldn’t make up the gap either. When all the funding was added up, in 1968 Edgewood schools received $356 per student compared to $594 in Alamo Heights, just a few miles across town.

That translated into big differences in what the schools could offer. Teachers in Edgewood were paid much less than those in Alamo Heights. Probably because of that, half of them had only substandard credentials, compared to 11% in Alamo Heights, which also had more staff per student. Class sizes in Edgewood were an average of 28 kids. Alamo Heights had a counselor for every 650 students; Edgewood had one for every 3,100. Despite being in southern Texas, just one in three Edgewood classrooms had air conditioning.

On July 10, 1968, with the support of Gochman, who took the case pro bono, Demetrio Rodriguez and several other San Antonio families filed suit against Texas’s school funding system, which they claimed violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution by discriminating against low-income, Mexican American families across the state. “I thought, I ain’t got nothing to lose,” Rodriguez said later. “Maybe we could do some good.”

But far from San Antonio, a small group of social scientists had begun to question the importance of money in public education. Instead, some researchers implied — or even stated outright — that blame for low student performance lay mostly with low-income families of color themselves.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act had included a provision requiring the federal Office of Education to produce a study on inequality in education. Many assumed it would show the need for more investment in segregated Black schools. Two years later, the federal government released the results — which stunned many educators and policymakers. The massive analysis of close to 600,000 students showed large gaps in test scores between Black and white students, but didn’t find much evidence that better schools or more funding led to higher test scores. Lagging student achievement, lead researcher James Coleman concluded, was mostly due to “the home” and “the cultural influences immediately surrounding the home,” rather than schools or money.

The study “produced the astounding proposition that the quality of the schools has only a trifling relation to achievement,” wrote politician and Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who evangelized the Coleman report, as it came to be known, in speeches and articles.

Coleman’s data set was unprecedented, but his methods for teasing out the impacts of funding on student outcomes were crude. He couldn’t follow individual students’ progress over time or isolate the effect of an infusion of funding. “Coleman’s analysis was not only wrong but generated misunderstandings that remain sadly pervasive today,” wrote Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby in a 2016 retrospective.

Nevertheless, the report soon picked up widespread attention: discussed at congressional hearings, written about in newspapers and magazines, and pored over by academics. It also drew notice because it came soon after the 1965 passage of Title I, the first major federal education funding stream and a key piece of Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.”

Coleman’s conclusion that families mattered more than schools seemed to bolster another high-profile report of the era: “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” written by Moynihan and published in 1965. This controversial analysis claimed that a rise in single parenthood was at the heart of a “tangle of pathology” among Black families. Moynihan said the point of the report was to spur government action to support low-income Black households. But some civil rights leaders condemned the report as shifting the blame for racial inequality onto Black people.

In 1969, this implication became explicit in an academic article published by University of California Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen. He claimed that IQ is nearly fixed at birth and that, therefore, extra funding for poor and Black children was doomed to fail because of what he viewed as their genetically low intelligence. This flagrantly racist argument was a sensation, garnering widespread press coverage. “Can Negroes learn the way Whites do?” was the headline in US News. “Born Dumb?” followed Newsweek. “Intelligence: Is there a racial difference?” asked Time magazine. The New York Times Magazine sympathetically profiled Jensen, describing his “severely trying moments” of being accused of racism.

This was a sign of the times, too: The heady optimism that the federal government could quickly end poverty and educational inequality had waned. The liberal coalition that had supported civil rights and Johnson’s war on poverty had splintered, amid white backlash and the Vietnam War. Riots rippled across American cities. White intelligentsia cast about for explanations for the persistent challenges of poverty, urban unrest, and racial inequality. Some landed on a convenient, age-old answer: the deficiencies of poor people of color.

That’s how in 1970, the Times could declare a “slum child” uneducable. Similarly, a 1970 Wall Street Journal news piece said that Title I funding to help students in poverty had produced “negligible” results. Lower test scores among children of color could be explained by either “genetic or cultural” factors, the article claimed.

In the introduction to a 1971 cover story on IQ, the editors of the Atlantic claimed that Moynihan, Coleman, and Jensen’s reports — “three landmark social documents” — had collectively called into question policy efforts to address racial inequity in education and elsewhere. Getting rid of racist laws had not eliminated economic and educational inequalities — “presumably,” they wrote, “because of in­ternal barriers.”

A 1973 front-page Washington Post story opened with this analogy: “The doctors, you might say, keep telling the parents that their child’s case is hopeless, that no amount of money or variety of remedies will add up to a cure.” The piece was accompanied by a picture of a Black student in a remedial reading class.

There were other, legitimate reasons to question the efficacy of school spending, including a 1969 report from the NAACP concluding that Title I dollars were often being misused. The Coleman report, although methodologically flawed, was among the few empirical examinations of whether more money led to better schools. The problem was that some pundits and researchers had leaped from these early results to write off the impact of schools and funding altogether.

A number of Black academics and writers tried to combat this fatalist brand of social science. “Such studies are a throwback to the nineteenth century theorists who adopted Social Darwinism — the survival of the fittest — as a means of bolstering the privileged classes of society,” wrote Vernon Jordan in the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper. “Now this old and ugly tradition is being revived.”

But this critique got much less attention from journalists and policymakers than the new educational fatalism, which had already migrated up to the White House.

Later serving as an adviser for President Richard Nixon, Moynihan sent the president an excerpt of Jensen’s paper on race and IQ, as well as two later memos that referenced Jensen’s claims. In a 1971 memo prompted by the Atlantic article on IQ, Moynihan claimed that psychologists believed that there was a “ranking of the major races” by intelligence: Asians, Caucasians, and then “Africans.” Moynihan expressed some anguish over this and described the conclusion as “not settled.” He also recommended Nixon not give up on social programs altogether.

Others were more fatalistic. White House adviser Patrick Buchanan, who later mounted bids for president, wrote a memo about the same article, saying it cast doubt on extra education spending. “Every study we have shows blacks 15 IQ points below whites on the average,” he wrote.

During a phone call with Moynihan, Nixon endorsed the idea of a racial hierarchy of intelligence. “What was said earlier by Jensen is probably very close to the truth,” said Nixon — who appointed four of the justices who, in just a few years, would decide Demetrio Rodriguez’s case.

But in 1971, three years after filing the lawsuit, Rodriguez still had good reason to be optimistic. In December, he and the other San Antonio parents won a major victory in federal court. ”The current system of financing public education in Texas discriminates on the basis of wealth,” a three-judge panel concluded unanimously. The question of whether more money could improve schools did not even come up in the decision.

Texas decided to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. The stakes were high not just in Texas, but beyond: Numerous other lawsuits had been filed against property tax–driven funding schemes across the country. But they were on a collision course with the new social science about the limits of school funding.

It was easy to miss, but phrases like “inequalities among people,” and “inadequate home life” were suggesting that children of color or children in poverty could not be expected to achieve high levels of academic performance, and so it would be fruitless to make funding more equal.

In a column for the New York Times, Moynihan wrote that while he sympathized with the Rodriguez plaintiffs, equal funding would not help schools. “The least promising thing we could do in education would be to spend more money on it,” he declared. The article was cited in the Texas brief before the Supreme Court.

It was possible to argue against the lawsuits based on legitimate questions about funding and outcomes, local control, or the constitutional issues at play. But at least in some cases, arguments lapsed into fatalism.

“In the view of many,” a 1971 Times story about the case claimed, “the true sources of educational deficiencies are rooted in the more basic inequalities among people and no amount of reshuffling of tax dollars, however just, is going to change that.”

“Do we as legislators have the responsibility to compensate for inadequate home life?” wondered an Oklahoma state legislator, as quoted by the Times.

It was easy to miss, but phrases like “inequalities among people,” and “inadequate home life” were suggesting that children of color or children in poverty could not be expected to achieve high levels of academic performance, and so it would be fruitless to make funding more equal.

One civil rights group was so concerned about the schools-don’t-matter narrative that it held a press conference in 1972 to beseech courts not to rely on this research. Such studies amounted to a “sophisticated type of backlash” to efforts to address inequality, said Kenneth Clark, a prominent Black psychologist whose research was cited in Brown v. Board of Education.

No matter. Attorneys defending Texas’s school funding scheme had seized on this research. “Beyond some minimum there is reason to believe that there is no relation between expenditures and quality of education,” lawyers for the state wrote in their brief before the court.

Justice Lewis Powell, whom Nixon had appointed to the Supreme Court in 1971 and who had previously served on the Richmond and Virginia school boards, wrote the majority opinion in San Antonio v. Rodriguez. It was a 5-4 ruling, with the four recent Nixon appointees forming the crucial majority bloc. If it had reached the court a bit earlier, it could have easily gone the other way.

Powell concluded it simply wasn’t the court’s role to meddle with complex funding formulas. Legally, Powell said that poor children and families do not warrant heightened constitutional protection from discrimination and that education is not a fundamental right.

Powell also raised questions about whether money matters — citing Coleman and Moynihan. “One of the major sources of controversy concerns the extent to which there is a demonstrable correlation between educational expenditures and the quality of education,” wrote Powell. The Los Angeles Times later reported that the issue of whether money mattered weighed significantly in the justices’ thinking. Powell did not himself claim that poor children of color could not learn or that schools did not matter, but the growing skepticism about education funding was deeply linked to that very idea.

The shadow of Brown v. Board of Education seemed to loom large in the case, but not in the way many expected. Enforcing desegregation had prompted a furious backlash and a host of practical difficulties that engulfed the court in litigation for decades to come. Deciding for the plaintiffs in the Rodriguez case, Powell wrote, would have led to an “unprecedented upheaval in public education.” Of course, Brown had led to such an upheaval. But Powell seemed to conclude that it simply wasn’t worth it this time.

“Powell felt that it would lead the Supreme Court into morass, like Brown v. the Board,” recalls Mark Yudof, a lawyer who worked on the case for the San Antonio parents. “It was a fear of being dragged into this unknown terrain that probably was the strongest factor.”

To Justice Thurgood Marshall, who had spearheaded the Brown litigation as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the majority opinion was a betrayal of Brown. “The majority’s holding can only be seen as a retreat from our historic commitment to equality of educational opportunity,” he wrote in dissent.

But the case was over. There would be no federal right to an education then or now. Dozens of lawsuits in lower courts were suddenly dead.

“I cannot avoid at this moment feeling deep and bitter resentment against the supreme jurists and the persons who nominated them to that high position,” Demetrio Rodriguez told the New York Times after the decision.

The legal fights over school funding were just beginning.

After the loss in 1973, lawyers and advocates shifted their focus to state courts. They sued under state constitutions — which, unlike the federal constitution, typically guarantee some form of education explicitly — and won a string of victories in a number of states. That included Texas, where Demetrio Rodriguez and other parents won a decision in 1989, which eventually resulted in some property taxes from wealthy areas being redistributed to poorer communities, a scheme dubbed by Texas politicians as “Robin Hood.”

“I cried this morning because this is something that has been in my heart,” said Rodriguez at the time. “My children will not benefit from it ... but there is nothing I can do about it now.”

Meanwhile, the debate about money and schools had also shifted. In the decades that followed Rodriguez, many politicians and researchers continued to question whether more dollars bought more learning. But this contention became much less linked to racist and classist assumptions about which children could learn. Instead it focused on whether public schools were functional enough to use money effectively.

More recently, the debate has shifted once again. In a seminal 2016 paper, three economists found that children benefited when their schools got extra money due to a state court order. Other research, examining different funding changes, has generally reached a similar conclusion: Students, particularly low-income students, typically do better when schools get more funding. “The results are very, very consistent,” said Kirabo Jackson, a Northwestern University economist and leading researcher on school funding. “The vast majority of these studies find positive effects on student outcomes.”

Research in the wake of the Coleman report has also shown that while out-of-school factors, like poverty, do affect student learning, schools and teachers matter too. Of course.

The above history might give us pause before too quickly accepting the confident claims of social science. But at the least, the new research has erased any scientific veneer behind the claim that money or schools don’t matter. Still, the court has not seriously reconsidered the Rodriguez decision; instead, in 2009, it reiterated in even stronger terms that money is unlikely to improve schools.

Admittedly, what the school funding system would have looked like today had the Supreme Court ruled differently in Rodriguez is unknowable.

Jeffrey Sutton, a federal judge and former clerk to Lewis Powell, has argued that state courts proved better equipped to deal with local funding complexities and ended up successfully addressing the funding disparities in Texas and elsewhere. These court decisions really did help chip away at school funding disparities — although it took time. By 1992, the funding gap between poor and non-poor districts was down to 20%, as states began making up for property tax differences. Presently the gap, contrary to conventional wisdom, is basically zero on a national level. Edgewood, for instance, receives similar funding as Alamo Heights all these years later.

But other legal scholars take the view that federal courts abdicated their responsibility and could be doing more. They point out that funding gaps still do exist in certain places and that there is a consensus that children in poverty need not simply equal funding for their education, but more.

In 2016, a handful of students in Detroit filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking a “right to read.” After a fleeting victory before an appeals court, the full circuit court vacated the decision. In the end, the plaintiffs managed a meager settlement with the state of Michigan in 2020. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to seek $94 million in extra funding for the city’s schools, but to date, it has not been funded.

It was nearly 50 years after Rodriguez, but the decision loomed large. It also has loomed in the background of Alex Rodriguez’s life.

After the decision, his schools, not surprisingly, didn’t change much. In the years that followed, the funding gap between Edgewood and Alamo Heights actually grew larger. Rodriguez graduated from high school in 1979 with little idea of what to do next. No one at the school had suggested he go to college. He doesn’t even recall thinking that was an option. Rodriguez worked for a while at an auto parts store, and then got a job driving a city bus. He did that for 36 years, logging over 2 million miles. He retired just over a year ago.

He lives a busy, fulfilling life now — running errands for his family, working on his truck, spending time with grandkids. He lives in the same house his parents did, the one on which cameras and reporters and lawyers descended 50 years ago. He has what he needs and doesn’t want more than that. He doesn’t live with any regrets. But Alex Rodriguez also understands that he was shortchanged. “I was one of the ones that suffered through the lack of education,” he says.

Matt Barnum is a Spencer fellow in education journalism at Columbia University and a reporter at Chalkbeat, where he’s written about education policy and politics since 2017.

This story appears courtesy of and Vox Media, LLC. Chalkbeat’s typical republishing guidelines do not apply.