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Should Americans Be Guaranteed the Right to an Equal Education?

Equal opportunity cannot exist without equal access.

(Photo: Bunlue Nantaprom / EyeEm / Getty Images)

More than 65 years after the Supreme Court deemed racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, the US’s education system remains a breeding ground for inequality. Whether students receive a quality education that prepares them for college depends almost entirely on their parents’ income levels. The historically high income-divide we see in the US today is rooted in and proliferated by the economic segregation of our schools.

The US Commission on Civil Rights issued a report in January following a lengthy investigation into the “profoundly unequal” state of US public schools, concluding that “many students in the US living in segregated neighborhoods and concentrations of poverty do not have access to high-quality schools simply because of where they live.”

Though disturbing, this isn’t surprising news. Schools are primarily funded by local property taxes — a system that tends to perpetuate poverty and secure greater privilege for the already privileged. It’s a system that must be changed, and soon, according to the report. In Commissioner Karen Narasaki’s words, “Every child deserves a quality education that does not depend on their ZIP code.”

The Commission’s proposed solution? “The federal government must take bold action to address inequitable funding in our nation’s public schools.” Federal funding — which currently accounts for approximately 8 percent of school expenditures — must be increased “with a goal to provide meaningful educational opportunity on an equitable basis to all students in the nation’s public schools.”

The historically high income-divide we see in the US today is rooted in and proliferated by the economic segregation of our schools.

Unfortunately, “bold action” isn’t something the federal government usually takes when it comes to advancing education. Initiatives like “No Child Left Behind” and “Every Child Succeeds” usually prove more problematic than useful due to an arbitrary emphasis on “accountability through testing” which fails to account for the underlying causes of educational achievement gaps.

Relying on the federal government means relying on Congress, of course. And here’s where things feel a little hopeless. Numerous reports have surfaced in the last few years confirming what most of us know: The number one issue for most elected officials is furthering their own careers by allowing special interest groups to dominate their agendas. Spending from six to eight hours a day fundraising for the next election doesn’t leave much time left over to work on legislation that would most directly benefit the poor — the socioeconomic class least likely to contribute to campaigns and vote.

Is going through Congress really our best and only shot? Maybe not. The Commission begins its report by citing the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, which was decided based on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, perhaps intimating that a similar interpretation of that clause is in order regarding unequal funding practices.

Though hundreds of cases protesting educational inequality have been brought to county and state supreme courts across the nation, the last one to reach the US Supreme Court was in 1973. In the case of the San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the court ruled that inadequate funding of schools in lower income areas didn’t violate the Equal Protection Clause because the school finance system in Texas didn’t intentionally discriminate against poor people. The court acknowledged that inequality had, in fact, resulted from school funding policies, but since those policies weren’t illegal, they chose to do nothing about it.

In 1973, the trend of rising income inequality that would reach the extreme proportions we see today was just beginning. The effects of unequal funding are far more damaging, widespread and far-reaching now. Still, 45 years later, individual attempts to secure educational justice through our court system are frequently decided on the precedence of the Rodriguez case.

Though a policy itself may not be technically unconstitutional or illegal, what matters is the outcome of that policy.

Such narrow interpretations of the law have generated injustices throughout every sector of US society. Though a policy itself may not be technically unconstitutional or illegal, what matters — and what should be judged — is the outcome of that policy. If the effect is to institutionalize inequality or otherwise guarantee disadvantage to a certain group, there are grounds for it to be interpreted as unconstitutional.

The judge had further added in the Rodriguez ruling, “Though education is one of the most important services performed by the State, it is not within the limited category of rights recognized by this Court as guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Though the “right to education” isn’t, in fact, written in our Constitution, other rights that are guaranteed can hardly be exercised without it. The lack of a quality education is, arguably, a root cause of poverty. No one is free to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” when worried about how to keep a roof overhead.

Education in the US presently falls under our “unenumerated rights” — rights that aren’t explicitly guaranteed, but implied. This means it can’t be expanded on to include such qualifiers as “quality” or “fair and equal.” This lack of specificity has helped land our public school system in the sad and sorry state it’s in today.

Of the numerous countries that surpass the US in educational achievement, all have the right to education guaranteed in their Constitutions, including Russia and China. All have federally funded schools, not locally funded. And none have the degree of educational or income inequality we have in the US.

If we weren’t the politically divided nation we are, we might hope to amend our Constitution to include the basic right to education. After all, the “rule of the law” was intended to reasonably adapt to the inevitable shifts that occur in a society over time. Amendments are so rare, however, only 27 out of more than 11,000 attempts have been ratified in 200 years. The last amendment, adopted in 1992, has to do with Congress members’ salaries.

The lack of a quality education is, arguably, a root cause of poverty … because equal opportunity can’t exist without equal preparation to meet those opportunities.

The argument for how our constitutional rights might apply to equitably funding schools — in order to help instate a quality education for all — rests on the massive body of evidence proving the symbiotic link between poverty and education, and how that link creates distinct disadvantages for individuals and contributes to greater overall inequality throughout society at large.

It’s reasonable to presume that the framers of our Constitution couldn’t have foreseen a future where a college degree is the surest way for the poor to break out of poverty, while the cost of college can’t be afforded by the small percentage of poor students who defy the odds by graduating from underfunded high schools college-ready. Nor could they have possibly imagined that nearly a quarter of US children would be faced with this damning situation.

At the time the Constitution was written, one’s lot was improved through the purchase of land. “Common schools” were just beginning to pop up throughout the 13 colonies. Funding schools from local taxes seemed fair and made good sense at the time.

Two-hundred-and-fifty years later, this system no longer makes sense or is fair. Congress may not be able to agree on something young children across the economic spectrum will knowingly tell you: It’s not fair to give some people less than others. Everyone deserves the same amount.

It isn’t the government’s job to make sure everyone receives the same amount, of course. But it is the government’s job to ensure equal opportunity regardless of age, race, sex, gender or religious belief, so that all might be free to pursue the same amount. The current economic climate dictates that the government should extend that guarantee to the financially disadvantaged, beginning with the fair and equal funding of public schools. Because equal opportunity can’t exist without equal preparation to meet those opportunities.