The Right to Equal Educational Opportunity: Serrano and Its Progeny


Today, education is essential for societal success, if not survival. It has become the primary prerequisite for individual advancement in the increasingly complex societyin which the individual finds himself. In Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court recognized the vital importance of education and held the fourteenth amendment to require that admission to public schools must be offered to all pupils on an equal basis, regardless of race.

However, not all the problems inherent in the achievement of equal educationalopportunity were resolved by the Brown decision. In recent years, it has persistently been claimed that inequalities in per pupil expenditure between school districts within a state result in a substantial deprivation of educational opportunity to those students upon whose education less money is spent. These inequalities in per pupil expenditure stem from the educational finance systems employed by the states. Except for Hawaii, each state divides its educational system into a number of local school districts through which a substantial portion of district educational revenue is raised by local property taxation. The problem is that some districts have per capita tax bases far smaller than those of other districts and, consequently, are not capable of as great a tax yield for educational purposes. The net result is that school children in poorer districts have less money spent on their education than do those pupils in richer districts. Hence, they are arguably being offered inferior educational opportunity.

In Serrano v. Priest, the California Supreme Court addressed itself to the problem of unequal interdistrict educational expenditure as a prime factor in the creation of unequal interdistrict educational opportunity. Employing the compelling state interest test, the court held the fourteenth amendment equal protection clause to require that educational opportunity be offered to all public school students on an equal basis, regardless of the wealth of the individual district in which the student resides. Specifically, the court held that since the local property tax segment of theCalifornia school tax structure was the genesis of unequal educational spending, it violated the equal protection clause.

Several courts have subsequently rendered carbon copy holdings. Each court, after indicating the structural similarity between the challenged mechanism of school finance and that of California, employed the Serrano rationale to invalidate that portion of the state school funding scheme based on local property taxation. Therefore, this Note will discuss the Serrano decision as both the seminal and the typical judicial holding in the area of educational fiscal neutrality.

The Serrano decision has implications far beyond its relatively narrow holding. First, the holding itself poses questions delving into the very core of the structure of educational administration and finance in America. Second, the court’s rationale could portend expansion in equal protection law and must be viewed in terms of its potential future application. This Note will both evaluate the potential impact of the Serrano holding on educational administration and finance and critically analyze the equal protection rationale on which Serrano is based.

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