UVA Law Launches Education Rights Institute

September 22, 2023 By Mary Wood, mmw3v@virginia.edu Mary Wood, mmw3v@virginia.edu

A new institute at the University of Virginia School of Law aims to ensure that all students receive a high-quality K-12 education and help schools understand how to address obstacles facing disadvantaged students.

The new Education Rights Institute, supported by an anonymous $4.9 million gift, is led by UVA professor Kimberly Jenkins Robinson, who will serve as the inaugural director.

She formerly served as an attorney with the General Counsel’s Office of the U.S. Department of Education and represented school districts at Hogan Lovells, a law practice specializing in education research and strategies.

“We will be amplifying data and scholarship about opportunity gaps so that more educators, policymakers and the public understand the importance of addressing these disparities and helping schools and districts identify ways to close these gaps and deliver a high-quality education,” Robinson said. “We also will be developing scholarship regarding a federal right to education, which would greatly improve educational opportunities and outcomes for students.”

Robinson garnered the gift after pitching the idea for the institute to a philanthropist interested in her scholarship.

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“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to use this money to make an impact in the scholarly community and the lives of students,” Robinson said.

School of Law Dean Risa Goluboff added, “This is a significant gift that is both a testament to Kimberly’s work and an amplifier of it. I look forward to seeing how it will improve equity in K-12 education across the nation.”

The institute will mark its launch on Oct. 16 with a half-day event featuring keynote speaker Na’ilah Suad Nasir, president of the Spencer Foundation, a nonprofit that invests in education research. UVA President Jim Ryan, also an expert in education law, and Goluboff, a civil rights expert, will give opening remarks. After the keynote talk, two panels - on educational opportunity gaps and potential reforms to close them - will feature leading experts, scholars and advocates in the field, including U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat representing Virginia’s 4th District.

The institute, Robinson said, has a three-part mission:

  • Elevating scholarship about establishing a federal right to a high-quality education that prepares students to be college- and career-ready and engaged citizens.
  • Helping school districts understand their obligations to protect students’ civil rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin, and helping districts identify available federal resources available to fulfill their obligations.
  • Amplifying data and research about educational opportunity gaps and how federal resources could address those shortcomings.

Students suffer the impact of poorly funded schools in multiple ways, Robinson said. U.S. schools in low-income communities frequently face challenges such as having less-experienced teachers and more infrastructure problems, including inadequate heating and cooling systems or pest infestations. More broadly, states typically base school funding on property taxes collected in the school district, so wealthier districts often receive more funding than low-income communities that may need extra help to overcome greater challenges.

“The data show that more than half of the states give the same or less funding to school districts with high concentrations of poverty, which is the exact opposite of what the research says to do give more resources to school districts with greater poverty,” Robinson said. “We’re the only wealthy nation that provides less funding to disadvantaged students. We are undermining our education system and the democracy, economy and society that relies on it to thrive.”

Robinson’s Personal Experience Drives Her Scholarship

Robinson’s interest in education law derives in part from her own experiences as a child, when her parents decided to move to another state in search of better schools for their children. Since her father worked in civil rights on employment discrimination issues and her mother once filed her own housing discrimination suit after being denied tenancy in Washington, Robinson grew up thinking her parents’ generation had “solved our civil rights challenges.”

Her perspective changed during her undergraduate years at UVA, as she gained more knowledge about contemporary challenges. Her interest in education law solidified as a student at Harvard Law School.

“I absolutely think that changing schools completely changed the trajectory of my life. As I got older, it occurred to me, what do the kids who can’t move do to get a better education?” she said. “I realized that there was still a long road to travel for all students to have access to a great school.”

Robinson’s scholarship has focused in part on a federal right to education and the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, in which justices ruled that the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee such a right.

Advocates and policymakers have consulted with Robinson about possible legislation to guarantee a federal right to a high-quality education. In the courts, a federal lawsuit challenging school conditions in Detroit took aim at the conclusion of the Rodriguez ruling and won before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 2020, though the decision was eventually vacated on review by the court’s full panel of judges. The successful case was litigated by Mark Rosenbaum, who will speak on a panel at the Oct. 16 launch.

The institute complements the Law School’s robust roster of education faculty and programs. Affiliated faculty will include Robinson and Ryan, along with Andrew Block, Chinh Q. Le, Molly McShane, Joy Milligan, Gerard Robinson, Karoline Homer Ryan, Richard C. Schragger and Crystal Shin.

Kimberly Robinson

Kimberly Jenkins Robinson, a professor in the Law School, the School of Education and Human Development, and the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, will direct the new institute. (Contributed photo)

Several faculty members have played a role in education policy in Virginia, including Block as former director of the Department of Juvenile Justice and now director of the school’s State and Local Government Policy Clinic, Gerard Robinson as Virginia’s former secretary of education, Shin as leader of the Holistic Youth Defense Clinic and a former Legal Aid Justice Center attorney, and McShane as a leader of the Child Advocacy Clinic and a related pro bono project.

In addition to the policy and defense clinics, the Law School offers several other courses focusing on education issues and the Youth Advocacy Clinic, which often helps young people with school-related matters.

Outside the classroom, the student organization Child Advocacy Research and Education, or CARE, brings together law students interested in taking a legal approach to issues affecting children, including education, juvenile justice, foster care and immigration. The Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law addresses education, among other policy issues, offering students another opportunity to engage.

Under Robinson’s leadership, the institute’s work will be supported by three full-time employees.

Sarah Beach and Helen Min are Education Rights Institute fellows and research assistant professors of law who hold doctorates from UVA’s School of Education and Human Development. GeDá Jones Herbert, who earned her law degree from the University of Michigan, will serve as the institute’s director of programming. She most recently worked as education special counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The group will help research and write reports for the institute, collaborate with school districts, plan future events, and communicate to schools and the public about research and resources that could improve students’ education and lives.

Kimberly Robinson, an education law policy expert and the Martha Lubin Karsh and Bruce A. Karsh Bicentennial Professor of Law, is also a professor in UVA’s Education School and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and serves as the director of the Law School’s Center for the Study of Race and Law.

She said she is also working with several UVA Law students who are serving as research assistants and would welcome additional students.

“Lawyers are definitely critical boots on the ground for fixing the education landscape,” she said. “There are so many different ways to be a part of this reform effort and I want to engage as many people as possible.”

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Mary Wood

Chief Communications Officer University of Virginia School of Law