Plyler v. Doe 1982

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Plyler v. Doe 1982

Appellants: J. and R. Doe, certain named and unnamed undocumented alien children

Appellees: James L. Plyler and others

Appellants' Claim: That a Texas law withholding public funds from local school districts for educating children not legally present in the United States and encouraging school districts to deny these children enrollment is constitutionally valid.

Chief Lawyers for Appellants: Peter D. Roos, Peter A. Schey

Chief Lawyers for Appellees: John C. Hardy, Richard L. Arnett

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., John Paul Stevens

Justices Dissenting: Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Sandra Day O'Connor, William Rehnquist, Byron R. White

Date of Decision: June 15, 1982

Decision: Ruled in favor of Doe (the illegal alien children) by finding that the Texas law violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and struck it down.

Significance: With this decision, states could no longer deny public education to children only because they were illegal aliens. The Court's opinion provided an important statement on the importance of education to American society.

The school on the Texas-Mexico border is known as a "gate school." Behind the playground is a chain-link fence dividing the United States from Mexico. From the playground children and teachers can see a Border Patrol jeep, its officer continuously peering through binoculars down along the border and school grounds. The officer is waiting and watching for yet another individual or family, desperate for a better way of life, to attempt to illegally (without permission) cross the border into Texas. Of the predominately Hispanic children at the gate school, the principal says it is difficult to tell who is documented (legal) or undocumented (illegal). To the principal it does not matter. She believes that a school should educate all children living within the United States boundaries and she intends to do just that. She is supported by the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Plyler v. Doe (1982) which ended years of controversy by ruling that states have the responsibility to educate children of undocumented aliens.

Equally Protected

Although the United States has restricted entry of foreigners into its borders since the late nineteenth century, countless individuals and families have illegally made their way into America. Border states like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California have seen the largest arrival of "illegal aliens." Illegal aliens are citizens of a foreign country living in America without permission. Illegal entry into the United States is a crime and persons who unlawfully enter are subject to deportation (sending an alien back to the country from which he came). However, once in the United States illegal aliens share some of the same rights as any legal alien or U.S. citizen. One of these rights is equal protection of the laws provided in the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The Equal Protection Clause provides that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction [geographical area over which a government has authority] the equal protection of the laws." Equal protection means that persons or groups of persons in similar situations must be treated equally by the laws. The Court first recognized in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886) that these rights extended to all persons, not just citizens, living within U.S. boundaries.

Tyler School District

With growing numbers of illegal aliens in the state, the Texas legislature in May of 1975 decided to change its education laws. The new law would withhold from local school districts any state funds used to educate children of illegal aliens. The 1975 change also authorized local school districts to deny enrollment in their public school to children of illegal aliens. Though the Tyler Independent School District continued to allow children of doubtful legal status to attend their schools, in July of 1977 they announced these children must begin paying a "tuition fee" in order to enroll.

In reaction, a class action lawsuit (lawsuit brought on behalf of a large group with a common interest) was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. The lawsuit was on behalf of all schoolage children of Mexican origin living in Smith County, Texas, who could not prove they had legally entered the United States. The suit charged that this group of children was being unfairly denied a free public education. The suit named as defendants the Superintendent and members of the Board of Trustees of Tyler Independent School District.

After conducting a thorough hearing, in December of 1977 the district court found that barring undocumented children from the schools might eventually save public money but the quality of education would "not necessarily" improve. Furthermore, these children might become the legal citizens of the future but, without an education, they would be locked into a "subclass" at the lowest economic level. Therefore, the district court found the Texas laws violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause which protects illegal aliens from unequal treatment by the laws.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed all the essential points of the district court's analysis and ruling. The case then moved to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Public Education in America

The Supreme Court decision in the Plyler case was a 5-4 split in favor of illegal alien children. The debate over the issues ran deep among the justices. Even the justices of the majority who agreed on the final decision had different reasons. Together, the concurring (agreeing with the decision) and dissenting (disagreeing with the decision) opinions provided a powerful look into the justices' beliefs about the importance of public education in American society.

Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., writing for the majority, identified that "the question presented . . . is whether, consistent [carrying out the intention of] with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Texas may deny to undocumented school-age children the free public education that it provides to children who are citizens of the United States or legally admitted aliens."

The school board argued that equal protection did not apply to those who entered the country illegally. The Court rejected their argument by emphasizing the decision of Yick Wo which declared all persons "within its [a government's] jurisdiction" came under Fourteenth Amendment protection. Deciding that illegal aliens came under the Equal Protection Clause was easy. The more difficult question was if Texas law violated equal protection.

A "Pivotal Role"

In arriving at their decision, the justices addressed the relationship between public education, the U.S. Constitution, and the importance of public education in American social order. Justice Brennan affirmed that education was not a right granted by the Constitution but added that education was more than "merely some government 'benefit' indistinguishable [cannot tell the difference] from other forms of social welfare legislation." Education was different because it plays a "fundamental" or "pivotal role" in maintaining our society. He added, "we cannot ignore the significant social costs borne by our Nation when select groups are denied the means to absorb the values and skills upon which our social order rests." Denial of a free public education to the children of illegal aliens places a lifetime hardship on them, for "illiteracy (inability to read) will mark them for the rest of their lives." Brennan found no reason for a state to cause such hardship on any individual. For these reasons the Court concluded the Equal Protection Clause required the Texas law be struck down.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun stated that to provide an education to some but deny it to others "immediately and inevitably [always] creates class distinctions [differences]" inconsistent with the purposes of the Equal Protection Clause. Blackmun observed "an uneducated child is denied even the opportunity to achieve." Likewise, Justice Thurgood Marshall concurred that denying public education based on class is "utterly incompatible" with the Equal Protection Clause. Justice Lewis Powell pointed out that the Texas law "assigned a legal status [to the children] due to a violation of law by their parents." These children "should not be left on the streets uneducated" as a consequence of their parents' actions over which they had no control.


"A merican people have always regarded education and [the] acquisition of knowledge as matters of supreme importance." Meyer v. Nebraska (1923).

" . . . public schools [are] most vital . . . for the preservation of a democratic system of government." Abington School District v. Schempp (1963).

These quotes from earlier Supreme Court decisions were used again in the Plyler v. Doe (1982) case. Yet, the Constitution makes no mention of education and the Court has never acknowledged it as a fundamental right. According to the Tenth Amendment, powers not given to the federal government are reserved to the states. Educating children in the United States has long been a responsibility of individual states which assign to local school systems. However, since the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision the Court has insisted that public education be equally available to all children. Through a combination of various laws and Supreme Court interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendments' Equal Protection Clause, schools have ever increasing responsibilities to provide equal opportunities to groups or classes previously barred from equal access. These opportunities extend to children of all races, to the physically and mentally disabled, to non-English speaking children, and to children of illegal aliens.

A State Matter

The dissenting opinion, written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, pointed out that the majority opinion, while denying education was a constitutionally protected right nevertheless did not make it clear just where education fell. Though Burger did not deny education's importance, the fact of its importance "does not elevate it to the status of a 'fundamental right.'" Burger observed that the solution of the issue should have been left to the state legislature even as disagreeable "as that may be to some."

The Role of Schools

The Court, in striking down the Texas law, addressed the role of schools in a democratic society and decided it was central to the American culture. The Plyler decision added a new responsibility for public schools. Public schools are obliged (required) to provide tuition-free education not only to American citizens and lawful alien children but also to children of illegal aliens.

Public resistance persisted, however. In 1994 California voters passed Proposition 187 restricting public school education for children of illegal aliens. In September of 1999 a U.S. District Court judge ruled that no child in California would be denied an education because of their place of birth.

Suggestions for further reading

Atkin, S. Beth. Voices From the Field: Children of Migrant Farmworkers Tell Their Stories. Boston: Joy Street Books, 1993.

Chavez, Leo R. Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American Society. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publications, 1998.

Conover, Ted. Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America's Illegal Aliens. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.

Kellough, Patrick H., and Jean L. Kellough. Public Education and the Children of Illegal Aliens. Monticello, IL: Vance Bibliographie, 1985.