by the California Supreme Court in Serrano v. Priest (more on that in the following section) and by a lower Texas federal court panel in Rodriguez v. San Antonio Independent School District.6 As a result, it appeared for a short time that the federal Constitution—and the Coons team's Proposition I—would indeed play a central role in shaping America's school finance system.
The lower court ruling in Rodriguez was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and in 1973, in a narrow 5-4 decision, the Court rejected the Coons team's theory. This decision dashed the advocates' hopes for a federal remedy to school finance inequities (Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 1973).
The plaintiffs in Rodriguez consisted of a class of children throughout the state of Texas living in districts with low per-pupil property valuations. In line with the Coons team's theory, they claimed that the Texas school finance system's reliance on local property taxation unfairly favored more affluent districts, creating substantial inter-district disparities that violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiffs asserted—and the lower court agreed—that, as a matter of federal constitutional law, education was a "fundamental interest" and wealth was a "suspect classification," thus requiring the application of "strict judicial scrutiny" to the state's wealth-based school finance scheme. With no "compelling interest'' in discriminating against low-wealth districts, the Texas plan (and by implication the school finance plans of virtually every state) would have to change.
The Supreme Court majority found several things wanting in the plaintiffs' case. First, the Court rejected the plaintiffs' invitation to treat wealth generally as a "suspect classification" (as it had treated race, for example), thereby triggering the need to justify unequal treatment with a compelling reason.7 Moreover, the Court distinguished within a group of prior decisions upon which the Coons team relied. The two most important cases involved states denying people access to divorce and to an appeal of a criminal conviction. But the Court emphasized that in those other cases a class of indigent persons were completely precluded from enjoying the desired benefit (Rodriguez , 1973:20).
By contrast, the plaintiffs in Rodriguez could not demonstrate to the Court's satisfaction that the Texas school finance system disadvantaged any class of persons fairly definable as indigent or with incomes below any designated poverty line. On the contrary, the primary basis for the plaintiffs' claims was discrimination based on district, not personal wealth. And, as the Court observed, there was no necessary correlation between the two.
Unlike the prior cases, Rodriguez did not involve an absolute deprivation of any benefits since all of the plaintiff children were receiving a free public education and their districts were assured at least some minimal level of funding.
The Court also decided that it would not treat education, as it had treated the right to travel for example,8 as a "fundamental interest" any infringement of which was subject to strict judicial scrutiny. The Court acknowledged the "grave significance of education both to the individual and to society" but nevertheless