Is education a civil right?

Technically speaking, education is not a recognized civil right. However, since the famous 1954 case of Brown v. The Board of Education, it has been illegal for public schools to discriminate on the basis of race. It is also illegal for a public school district to be segregated as a result of intentional practices, such as the drawing of school district boundaries around exclusively single-race areas (a practice known as de jure segregation). These facts lend themselves to the argument that education is a civil right, or that education can be considered a de facto civil right.         

Civil Rights in the United States

In the United States, the issue of civil rights is surprisingly unclear. Civil rights laws are primarily concerned with issues of discrimination. As such, civil rights are not enshrined in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. They are not even constructs or conceptual paradigms from which other principles are derived. Civil rights are simply created by acts of Congress. For instance, the Civil Rights law of 1957, primarily a voting rights bill, established that voting rights were to be considered a civil right.

Similarly, the civil rights movement of the 1960s was a fight to guarantee civil protections for all members of society, but this movement did not address education in particular.

Determining Who Has Access to Civil Rights

What exactly is a civil right?  A better question might be, who has access to civil rights, and when? Civil rights laws do not necessarily have targets, but they always have claimants. On the federal level, discrimination in any number of areas is illegal if it is based on any of several protected characteristics, such as sex, age, disability, religious affiliation, marital status, race and color. These categories were enshrined into law by civil rights acts, but none of them specifically addresses education.

If, for example, the population of a school is composed exclusively of one race as a result of freely-made housing decisions (de facto segregation), this would suggest no violation of federal civil rights laws. This example demonstrates that education is, in effect, not a civil right.

The U.S. Supreme Court tended to support this viewpoint in its very controversial decision in the 2007 case, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. In this case, the Supreme Court strengthened an opinion held in earlier cases that it is not legal to hold seats open for students in public schools and assign those seats solely on the basis of race. This was determined despite race being a protected class under established U.S. civil rights jurisprudence. This means that civil rights do not, in effect, apply to education, and thus education is not a civil right.