Domestic Affairs

Establishing a Constitutional Right to Education

American education is broken. Despite enjoying global renown for its higher education institutions, American K-12 schools are near the bottom of the pool in relation to other “developed” nations. What’s more, not all public schools in the U.S. are created equal. Study after study has proven that funding inequalities in public schools directly leads to worse outcomes in life for students of underfunded institutions and cements socioeconomic inequality. In order to create a fairer society, it’s clear we must look towards a more just system of education. It is time for the federal government to step up and acknowledge education as a constitutional right. 

While the U.S. does have an extensive public school system, what’s really in question is the quality of that education. Property taxes fund the majority of public school budgets in the U.S. Although the federal government provides some funding to schools, its contribution only makes up approximately 8% of total public education funding. The historic lack of federal intervention can be traced back to the original role of schools: serving the community and educating students on topics that were most useful to their local areas. In a country as large and diverse as the U.S., it is no wonder that a single top-down approach would have likely been ineffective. In theory, the flexibility of schooling in the U.S. should have created a system tailor made for individual students. 

Unfortunately, racism and class inequality stand in the way of realizing the ideal of high quality local education. Affluent neighborhoods often have access to more successful schools than those available to poor communities. Property taxes in poor areas tend to be lower and, therefore, offer a smaller pool of money from which local schools can draw. This underfunding results in more students per classroom, deteriorating buildings, and fewer extracurricular activities. Due to the determining effect the quality of one’s education has on a student’s life trajectory, many communities end up trapped in a multi-generational cycle of poverty. Low quality schools lead to low quality education, which leads to underpaid jobs and more children being born into poverty. 

And then there is the issue of race. Due to America’s history of racist policies, African-American students are far more likely to experience poverty than their white counterparts. Government sponsored actions such as red-lining or even highway construction demonstrate the effects of racism on a child’s education decades later. Red-lining prevented the development of African-American neighborhoods and kept property prices low. Government institutions often deliberately planned highway construction in marginalized communities’ neighborhoods, leading to lower property values, which, in turn, led to fewer property taxes, causing once thriving schools to shut down.

A 2020 Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision found that the physical conditions of Detroit public schools were so “decrepit” that they violated the rights of the students attending them. Students were charged with teaching entire classrooms of their peers. Additionally, the building’s A.C. and heating system was in such disrepair that students reported being able to see their breath during the winter and fainting in the summer. Although likely an extreme case, the reality is not all too different for millions of students living in poverty. Educational equity cases are nothing new, and their prevalence throughout American history proves just how large a problem this is. 

The landmark San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez case in 1972 was argued on similar grounds. Citizens of a predominantly Latino community argued that the disparities in education between them and their wealthier neighbors were a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Funding per student was almost double in wealthier school districts when compared with the less affluent district. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that there was no federally protected right to education and refused to further evaluate the claims brought forth by the plaintiffs. 

The top 10% wealthiest school districts in the country spend ten times more per student than the poorest 10% do. The funding disparity is representative of the unequal opportunities offered to students. Simply being born in the wrong part of town can put students on a path towards failure before they even place a foot in the classroom. An education system where less than 10% of students in poverty will graduate college cannot be considered equal, 

Moreover, urbanization and technological advancements have continued to change American culture, and as the ongoing pandemic has proven, jobs are increasingly not tied to any one physical location. The pandemic has also proven that inequalities still run rampant. Families without English speakers are struggling to help their children, and virtual learning has slowed down progress for kids everywhere. The difference is wealthier families can afford to make up this loss through outside tutoring that poor families cannot access. Bundled together with weak to non-existent internet connections, missing out on school meals, lacking a quiet space to do school work, and a myriad of other problems, it is obvious that marginalized students are once again getting the short end of the stick. These recent events have only served to highlight inequalities in education. Quality public education should have always been guaranteed by the federal government, but now more than ever, there is no excuse for the gaping disparities in education. 

Politicians have framed our global underperformance as a significant issue in terms of our vulnerability to foreign enemies. This was clearly demonstrated by the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” and its manifestation in the Bush-era “No Child Left Behind” policy. Failing children were not imagined as individuals that deserved well-thought-out and substantive help in order to improve. Instead, underperforming children, teachers, and schools were seen as a problem that could be solved through punishment. NCLB imposed standardized tests nationwide in order to more easily track and compare student performance. Well performing schools were rewarded and poorly performing ones were deprived of funding. The implication was that schools, teachers, and students all somehow chose to underperform and that in order to improve it was all a matter of providing the right incentives. 

This mentality makes sense if one is attempting a quick fix in education in order to bolster one’s strength against foreign enemies. The Bush administration bore witness to a rising China and its increasingly more competent technological capacity. Fearing the U.S. was no longer internationally competitive in STEM circles, NCLB focused all its attention on improving math and science scores. The result was a punitive approach that systematically robbed schools of their funding all while failing to address the root of the problem. 

Viewing education purely as a national security concern led to unnecessary experimentation with our children’s futures for what were often pitiful gains. Schools with the means to improve did while the vast majority of failing schools continued to fail and the education gap remained large. The inappropriate rhetoric has led to irresponsible short term solutions such as prioritizing charter schools over traditional public schools. 

Although education as a human or constitutional right might seem foreign to Americans, we are once again behind other countries when it comes to the subject. Almost every country in the world with a constitution includes the word “education” in its founding documents. The 1948 UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights also guarantees everyone the right to a quality education. India and Sweden even serve as a precedent for nations that added a right to education after the fact. While the U.S. does have an extensive public school system, what’s really in question is the quality of that education. 

While the results of San Antonio ISD v. Rodriguez have shut down the possibility of equitable education in the status quo, the Supreme Court also outlined the remedy to the problem: establishing a constitutional right to education. The Supreme Court ruled that education was not a right protected by the 14th Amendment because it was not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. Adding it would resolve the issue. The move would allow suits to be brought under the Equal Protection Clause and produce more equitable funding streams. Studies have repeatedly found that raising funding leads to increased educational attainment, wages, and poverty reduction. Merely increasing funding to poor schools would go a long way. Current litigation is focused at the state level, and even though they provide both symbolic and substantial victories, they are destined to fail. States simply do not have the tax revenue to close funding gaps within their state. Furthermore, ensuring that students have equal opportunities regardless of the state they live in will also require closing gaps between states. This is a responsibility the federal government must bear. Only the federal government has the resources and capability to effectively enforce a right to education. 

Having the federal government lead the charge would decrease monetary costs overall. Research on improving education quality is expensive and mostly conducted at the state level. Federal leadership would eliminate duplicate studies and allow this research to be spread among states more efficiently. The government can similarly optimize other areas such as technical capacity and oversight.  

Prior administrations have already found that our K-12 education system’s condition is so lackluster that it poses a national security risk. Therefore, there should be no trouble attracting bipartisan support for such a measure. Education reform tends to be bipartisan as demonstrated by the Bush push for NCLB. Biden could pursue a right to education and make good on his promise of national unity. If we can afford to spend nearly a trillion dollars on defense expenditures, we can cover an additional eighty-billion dollars in education spending. The payoff might just make it the most prudent investment we can make. Not only can we improve our citizens’ livelihoods, but if the U.S. hopes to keep its technological advantage on foreign nations like China, the federal government must do something to stay competitive. 

A right to education does not mean that all schools would look exactly the same. In fact, it does not even mean that all schools would receive the exact same dollar amount in funding. The promise of a right to education means that every school across the nation would be given the tools needed to succeed. Some schools might have quality teachers but lack an up-to-date building. Some communities might need more funding for translators or ESL programs while others may only need to offer internet access to their students. These problems are complex and the solution should not be a one-size-fits-all. A right to education means every student will have a legal remedy to guarantee they receive a quality education. 

Although a constitutional right to education is promising, some problems will remain unresolved. Variable quality of teaching is frequently identified as a root of poor school performance. Establishing a right to education will not directly address this issue. Simply raising funding will not immediately create a stockpile of experienced teachers. Becoming a teacher takes years of hard work and dedication and is not something one can learn in a week of training. 

Furthermore, parents in poverty spend most of their time working, resulting in less time helping children grasp concepts early in their education. Children in poverty are also more likely to be born with health problems and suffer from malnutrition that could impede their education. However, it is important to note that substantial funding would likely raise pay for teachers and incentivize more people to enter the profession as well as improving the quality of after school programs meant to deal with the effects of poverty. Overall, the benefits of making education a right far outweigh the monetary costs.
A right to education might seem like an unachievable goal, but it is important to realize that we are already far closer than one might imagine. We have the foundation, a widespread network of schools that are free to attend for every child in America. All that is left is to maximize its potential by guaranteeing everyone who is in our schools is getting an equitable education. Establishing a constitutional right would mean the full force of the law would be available to challenge injustices in the school system whether they be racial, classist, or sexist in nature. There would surely be obstacles, but overcoming them would mean that we could help eliminate poverty and decades of institutional racism in one fell swoop. We know how to create good schools – the affluent have had access to them for centuries. It is all a question of whether we have the political will to guarantee the same for everyone.

3 replies »

  1. I happened upon a study (titled The Science of Early Childhood Development, 2007) that formally discovered what should be the obvious:

    “The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the health and well-being of the next generation. Stated simply, today’s children will become tomorrow’s citizens, workers, and parents. When we invest wisely in children and families, the next generation will pay that back through a lifetime of productivity and responsible citizenship. When we fail to provide children with what they need to build a strong foundation for healthy and productive lives, we put our future prosperity and security at risk …
    All aspects of adult human capital, from work force skills to cooperative and lawful behavior, build on capacities that are developed during childhood, beginning at birth … The basic principles of neuroscience and the process of human skill formation indicate that early intervention for the most vulnerable children will generate the greatest payback.”

    Although I appreciated the study’s initiative, it’s still for me a disappointing revelation as to our collective humanity when the report’s author feels compelled to repeatedly refer to living, breathing and often enough suffering human beings as a well-returning ‘investment’ and ‘human capital’ in an attempt to convince money-minded society that it’s indeed in our best fiscal interest to fund early-life programs that result in lowered incidence of unhealthy, dysfunctional child development.

    While some may justify it as a normal thus moral human evolutionary function, the general self-serving Only If It’s In My Own Back Yard mentality can debilitate social progress, even when it’s most needed; and it seems that distinct form of societal ‘penny wisdom but pound foolishness’ is a very unfortunate human characteristic that’s likely with us to stay.


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