An In-Depth Look at the 14th Amendment, Students, and the American Dream

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” – Thomas Jefferson

America was founded upon an unprecedented notion of equality. Regrettably, the initial legal definition of such a progressively-rooted value proved, in time, to be discriminatory in both terminology and practice. Perhaps principal authors, like Thomas Jefferson, of the historic documents upon which this country was built simply failed to consider democracy’s unique potential to eventually achieve a seemingly utopian ideal. A society in which men, women, and children are created equal is the American dream. It subsists solely upon the equitable capability of every individual citizen to experience and capitalize upon their unalienable Rights, particularly by means of social mobility. By pursuing higher education, that dream can be realized, so long as each branch of the federal government creates, interprets, and enforces legislation allowing every American student to hope realistically.

The most concrete legislative efforts towards effectuating this aim can be traced back as early as postbellum America. Following the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, Southern legislatures circumvented federal law by establishing Black Codes, effectively resurrecting the legality of involuntary servitude. In response, Congress passed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1866. Fearing that the law would be declared unconstitutional, the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified on July 18, 1868, broadening the definition of national citizenship, and prohibiting states from denying “any person within its jurisdiction equal protection under the laws.” This statute became known as the Equal Protection Clause, a tool that has retroactively proven to safeguard the rights of American students, in a country plagued by an inescapably discriminatory past.

A byproduct of the prematurely liberal minds of the nineteenth century, the Equal Protection Clause was originally misconstrued in Plessy v. Ferguson. In this case, the “separate but equal” doctrine negated the latter, constituting the racial segregation of American schools. Ironically, it was the inevitable repositioning of the same “equal protection” question that ultimately reversed the Plessy v. Ferguson verdict.

In Mendez v. Westminster, U.S. District Court Judge Paul McCormick originally challenged the legal interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause, citing that “a paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality.” Mendez’s case, and Judge McCormick’s stance on the Fourteenth Amendment, set the stage for the landmark civil rights suit Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Decided unanimously in 1954, Brown v. Board was a consolidation of four cases, each utilizing the Equal Protection Clause to prosecute on bases of racial discrimination against African American minors in the public school admissions process. In this instance, Chief Justice Earl Warren held the “separate but equal” doctrine to be unconstitutional, a verdict that single-handedly dismantled the legality of segregation in all public school facilities and activities. Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, and minorities in general, initiated the painful but necessary process of integration. Brown v. Board reasserted America’s values, and challenged those stuck in the past to reconsider their Bill of Rights, and the extent of people it protects.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 implemented two statutes that have proved useful in litigation involving the protection of students’ rights. Title VI “bars intentional discrimination” towards students, while Title XI “prohibits discrimination based solely upon the basis of sex.” Title XI was enacted in 1972, following the Civil Rights Movement, demonstrating yet another progression of the legal definition of protection. The scope of Title XI spans “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” only some of which include athletics and admissions.

Particularly, these advances have occurred in a large-scale effort to balance educational opportunities available to minorities and women with those of historically unoppressed groups. Some argue, however, that the state of equality among students has since counterbalanced, in the form of affirmative action policies, distinctly on college campuses.

The debate over the constitutionality of admissions processes which consider race as a factor in decision-making has divided the country substantially. Those opposed to the institution of such policies hail them as “reverse discrimination.” The Supreme Court’s lack of a single majority opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke displays the polarity of the topic. Notably, Justice Lewis F. Powell asserted the importance of promoting educational diversity on school campuses,while  understanding that “a university may not remedy the cumulative effects of society’s discrimination by giving consideration to race.”

Furthermore, crucial precedents were set following the contrasting verdicts of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. The cases, involving separate admissions policies within the University of Michigan, resulted in vital application of the concept of “strict scrutiny,” with respect to the Fourteenth Amendment. Despite walking a constitutionally fine line in their application, affirmative action policies can be instituted legally. These cases demonstrated the judiciary’s ability to apply the Equal Protection Clause in an individualized manner.

Courts and classrooms alike have routinely displayed a similarly individualistic approach towards students, as evidenced by the deliberate wording of both legislation and opinion. From affirmative action decisions reiterating “individual consideration”, to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, there is an undeniable emphasis on circumstantial specifics. This concept is best demonstrated by the Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, a case that has single-handedly determined the meaning of educational equality in the 21st century.

Endrew, an autistic student, was removed from a Colorado school district by his parents when they decided that his education proved inadequate. The parents then sued for reimbursement of private school tuition. Endrew’s case went through a district and appeals court, both of which affirmed that he had, in fact, been provided with the “free appropriate public education” required by law. The Tenth Circuit Court applied the standard of “merely more than de minimis [the minimum]” concerning Endrew’s education. After appealing to the Supreme Court, a unanimous decision in favor of Endrew required school districts to offer Individualized Education Plans, and become fully integrated into the classroom, following a new standard of “appropriately ambitious” progress.

When arbitrating a case so inherently representative of American values, the Justices of the Supreme Court were undoubtedly considering the unapologetically ambitious of the American dream. Their unanimous decision was surely characterized by a mutual understanding that, in a nation with such a debilitating past, the future demands substantive, measurable progress. The American dream has never conformed to “de minimus,” just as Thomas Jefferson never submitted to monarchical government, nor Martin Luther King, Jr. to discrimination. The minds of the leaders who shaped America’s character were molded themselves, initially, through education. As students, they aspired to achieve equality for themselves and their peers, despite their obstacles. Students today want the same: an equal chance at Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

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