Many people in Texas have never heard of Demetrio Rodriguez.
He was the son of migrant farm workers, served in the military and was a sheet metal worker at an U.S. Air Force base.
But Rodriguez helped launch one of the fiercest legal battles in Texas history.
It was about what counts as a fair education.
“You could call it an epic battle, a saga with multiple chapters,” said Albert Cortez, who directs policy at the Intercultural Development Research Association, or IDRA.
Cortez said Rodriguez was one of the “brave souls” who challenged the Texas school finance system on behalf of not only his own children, but other children in Texas.
Patty Rodriguez said her father Demetrio Rodriguez was her “hero” because he stood up to injustice and never gave up. Photographer: Mark Sobhani
“He was my hero and he is my hero for never giving up, all those years of going back and forth from one court case to another,” said his daughter Patty Rodriguez.
“He actually stood up when he saw some injustice being done. Even though it’s not fixed, he helped get it on the track to getting fixed and he’s my hero for that,” she added.
To explain her father’s work and his legacy, she and her brother Alex Rodriguez recently pulled out the family archive. They spread a pile of yellowed newspaper clippings across her round kitchen table.
They spanned decades and included article from community papers, college dailies and national outlets.
One of the headlines read: “Public School Financing: The Most Important Issue in Texas Today.”
The paper showed the elementary school Alex attended in the late 1960s.
Rodriguez said he still remembers the leaky windows, how there was no air-conditioning and how the third floor was condemned. He and other children still attended class on the second and third floors.
The conditions made their father Demetrio Rodriguez upset. He wanted his five children to have a decent education since he had to stop after the sixth grade. He also had experienced discrimination first-hand and was sensitive to the fact their school district enrolled mostly Mexican-American children.
“He wasn’t just thinking about me and my brothers at that time. He was thinking about the kids and the future kids that were coming. If they were going to be where they were at, they weren’t going to get sufficient education,” Alex Rodriguez said.
Their dad wanted to know why the Edgewood Independent School District didn’t do more – not just fix the old building, but also buy enough books or hire better teachers. Nearby other school districts, like Alamo Heights, had better facilities and learning conditions.
Patty Rodriguez said their dad teamed up with other parents.
“They learned that it wasn’t the school district itself. It was the state not providing enough money. So that same group of parents including my dad decided to go ahead and file a lawsuit,” she said.
The funding gap between districts was wide, said Cortez. He said for example, the Edgewood district could raise about $50 per student from property taxes while a nearby, wealthier district, like Alamo Heights, could raise $500 per student at half the tax rate.
In 1968, the 16 parents filed a class-action federal lawsuit against the Texas Board of Education and other defendants.
The lawsuit, called Rodriguez et al. v. San Antonio ISD, bears Mr. Rodriguez’ name, because he was the first parent to sign up.
In 1971, a federal court ruled the Texas system unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.
But the state appealed and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
There, the parents’ attorney, Arthur Gochman, argued that education was a fundamental right and that people in poor school districts faced discrimination because property wealth drove school funding.
“You know, if this was a rich guy in a poor district, we wouldn’t be in court. He’d just move. But the poor have no way out of the present system,” said Gochman in his oral arguments more than 40 years ago.
Rodriguez and the other parents lost their case.
In a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court said the Texas school finance system was unfair, but it didn’t violate federal law and it was up to the state to fix it.
“They did note it was chaotic, it was unjust and it was up to the people of Texas to fix what they saw as a flawed system,” said Cortez, who attended Edgewood schools himself and knew Rodriguez.
His group, IDRA, was created in the wake of the decision to continue attention on school finance reform.
Nationally, the Rodriguez case put a spotlight on how Texas and other states struggled to provide fair school funding for all students.
“This was probably the best example of the court moving toward less protection of civil rights,” said Albert Kauffman, a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio.
Kauffman said he believes the U.S. Supreme Court, which was involved in desegregation at the time, was reluctant to make another ruling involving school policy.
Patty Rodriguez coaches special education students in the Edgewood Independent School District, where she grew up. She said she still sees disparities in opportunities and funding for her students.
But if the Supreme Court had ruled differently, it could have brought about change to school finance sooner in the 1970s and could have had an impact on other states, according to Kauffman.
Instead, school finance lawsuits have become a perennial battle in Texas.
Kauffman represented Rodriguez and others in another lawsuit in state court nearly a decade later in 1984, known as Edgewood ISD v. Kirby.
By then, Rodriguez had grandchildren attending Edgewood schools.
Kauffman said his client had a strong sense of justice.
“He came from an environment in the ’50s and ’60s where Mexican-Americans were treated so badly and poor people were treated so badly and I think he early on decided to focus his energies for the rest of his life on doing something about that,” he said.
That second case in state court became a landmark victory.
It eventually led to significant school finance reform in Texas, known as the “Robin Hood plan,” which requires richer districts to share some of their wealth.
That brought property-poor districts closer to rich ones in funding, but not equal.
So the lawsuits continued.
Rodriguez spent the rest of his life following court battle after court battle until he died at the age of 87 in 2013.
The same year, the Texas school finance system was declared unconstitutional for the fifth time.
Today, Demetrio Rodriguez’ daughter Patty Rodriguez is a special education teacher in Edgewood, where she grew up and where she’s worked for over 20 years.
She said that the disparities may not be as obvious, but she still sees them, like not enough teachers. And she knows that her students face a lot of challenges.
“To think that this could have been fixed a long time ago, it’s frustrating to still see some of those same things happening and until who knows when this is going to get fixed,” she said.
“It’s been named all kinds of names, but it comes down to the same basic idea that all schools should be funded equally based not on what side of town you live on or how much your house is worth. It’s how much is your children’s education worth.”
This originally aired on April 27, 2015.
Support for this series was provided by “The Equity Reporting Project: Restoring the Promise of Education,” which was developed by Renaissance Journalism with funding from the Ford Foundation.