The Education Reform Primer: The federal government’s early involvement, and deleterious impact, on public school education

The Education Reform Primer: A blog exploring the history of public school education in America

This blog will explore some of the influences from the last 375 years (mostly from the last 100 or so) that have shaped public school education and made it what it is today. So stay tuned, add this to your favorites, and prepare to receive a bit of education on education.

The federal government’s early involvement, and deleterious impact, on public school education

by Matthew R. Plain

In 1892, Homer Plessy, who was 7/8 white and 1/8 African-American, took a seat in a Louisiana rail car reserved for whites. Plessy undertook this action in violation of Louisiana’s Separate Car Act, a law mandating “equal but separate accommodations” based on race. Plessy refused to move seats, and was arrested for violating the Act. A group of New Orleans professionals formed the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law, hired Attorney Albion Tourgee to represent Plessy, and challenged the constitutionality of the Act.  Tourgee argued that the Act denied Plessy equal treatment under the law. Both the U.S. District Court and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied the contention that the Act was unconstitutional, and Plessy appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled, in a 7-1 decision, that the Act did not violate Plessy’s constitutional rights and that this type of segregation was permissible. The decision would become known as the “separate but equal” doctrine. Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented, and famously penned: “Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.”

The Plessy decision reinforced then-existing segregation laws and catalyzed the implementation of others. States now had Supreme Court backing in legislating segregation, and the Jim Crow system, particularly in the South, would gain considerable momentum. The impact on schools was obvious, as states routinely underfunded schools attended by mostly black students and in some cases mandating the separation of education systems based on race, widening the divide in opportunity. Similar constitutional challenges followed on the heels of the Plessy decision, some specifically regarding segregated schools, without success. Segregation practices spread considerably, negatively impacting opportunity for black school children, and reversing some of the positive, Reconstruction-era developments.  This trend would continue for the first half of the twentieth century, but its impact is likely still felt today. Accordingly, the federal government’s early foray into education, albeit indirect, has had significant consequences on public school education, as some systems continue to suffer from lingering vestiges of this 122 year-old decision.

Barton Gilman provides the full scope of legal services to education clients – including charter schools, charter management organizations, private schools, education advocacy organizations and other education-related organizations – throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York City. For more information, please click here.

Matt Plain is a Partner at Barton Gilman focusing his practice on education law, including school governance, administrative law, labor and employment, special education, and contract drafting and disputes. In addition, Matt is currently serving his second term as an elected member of the East Greenwich School Committee. In this capacity, he chairs the district’s policy subcommittee and serves on the negotiating team. Matt also teaches Education Reform and Policy at Roger Williams University School of Education. He is a former public school teacher and holds a Master of Education degree with a concentration in Curriculum and Instruction. Matt has been named a 2018 Best Lawyer in America in Education Law, a New England Super Lawyer Rising Star, and a 40 Under Forty honoree by Providence Business News.