On C-SPAN Radio’ s historic Supreme Court Oral Argument this week: “Tyler, Texas School Superintendant James Plyler, and others, Appellants v. ‘Doe’ and others, Appellees.” This 1981 case is about illegal immigrants, access to public education and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
A revision to the Texas education laws in 1975 allowed the state to withhold from local school districts state funds for educating children of illegal aliens. This case was decided together with “Texas v. Certain named and unnamed alien child.”
School officials in Tyler, Texas, under the direction of Superintendent James Plyler, began charging $1,000 annual tuition for each unauthorized immigrant student. A Catholic lay worker called a local lawyer about children being told they could not go to school, and the lawyer agreed to represent the families. The lawyer began working with the Mexican American legal defense and educational fund. They filed a case on behalf of four families, whom the court allowed to be identified using pseudonyms.
A U.S. District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction requiring Tyler, Texas to admit all students and required the state education board to release funds to the Tyler school district for all students. In 1978, that judge found both the state law and Tyler's policy unconstitutional, holding that they violated the 14th amendment's equal protection clause. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the decision. The Plyler case and a similar one from Houston ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.