University of Chicago Law Review

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For decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has left open the question whether the U.S. Constitution protects a right to some amount of education. While such a right is not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, advocates have long argued for the existence of an implicit, fundamental right to a basic minimum education under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Recognition of such a right requires grappling with the Supreme Court’s substantive due process jurisprudence. To be a fundamental right, one requirement is that a proposed right have deep roots in U.S. history and tradition. This Comment examines whether the right to a basic minimum education—defined as basic literacy—is deeply rooted.

While courts differ in how they analyze whether a right is deeply rooted, they all generally view the time around the Fourteenth Amendment’s enactment as a relevant historical consideration. With a focus on that time period, this Comment analyzes two case studies: the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—or “Freedmen’s Bureau”—and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In both cases, the federal government perceived a gap in local provision of education and responded through these agencies with support for literacy education. In serving as a backstop to local educational failures, the federal government’s actions ensured access to a basic literacy education. This pattern of behavior provides support for the notion that the right to a basic minimum education is deeply rooted.

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