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The Brown Political Review is a non-partisan political publication that seeks to promote ideological diversity. All of the views reflected in BPR’s content are views held by authors and not reflective of the views held by the wider organization or the Executive Board.

The Great Equalizer: How a constitutional right to education could save our schools

The word “education” appears in the constitutions of 185 of the 193 recognized states in the world. Of the eight countries that do not designate education as a fundamental constitutional right, all but one are subject to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes a child’s right to education. Standing alone as the one country that has not ratified this Convention is the United States. Despite having ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes that “everyone has the right to education,” the United States does not guarantee its citizens a constitutional right to education.

The exclusion of the right to education in the US Constitution is at odds with the country’s long history of recognizing the social importance of education. Horace Mann, a 19th century pioneer of American public schools, called education “the great equalizer.” He recognized that education is not only a key contributing factor to economic and social mobility but also a vital prerequisite to participation in a functioning democracy. Given the power of education in fostering social and political change, the US Constitution must recognize this fundamental federal right.

Owing in part to the lack of federal legislation concerning educational equity, some education reformers have pursued legal remedies to combat educational inequities. Ideally, a federal right to education would be recognized through a Supreme Court ruling, though the Supreme Court rejected such a notion in the 1973 case of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. In Rodriguez, the plaintiffs argued that the unequal distribution of funds amongst Texas school districts violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause because the funding system created unequal access to education based on a student’s district. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against this claim, reasoning that education is not a protected right given its absence from the Constitution. The Court did, however, suggest that some judicial intervention in education might be necessary.

Since the Rodriguez ruling, reformers have continued the legal fight for the right to education, though they have had to approach the issue in new and creative ways. The case of Gary B. v. Whitmer was filed in 2016 in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by students from five different schools over the abysmal conditions in the Detroit Public School District, which suffered from decaying buildings, poor teacher retention, and near-zero proficiency rates in all subject areas. At one school in the district, a math teacher quit near the beginning of the year due to frustrations with the lack of support from the administration and unreasonably large class sizes. He was subsequently replaced with the highest-performing eighth grade student. The plaintiffs claimed that these conditions violated their fundamental right to education, including their right to literacy, granted under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. In a landmark shift from the Supreme Court’s ruling in Rodriguez, the three-judge Sixth Circuit panel affirmed that the Constitution affords students a fundamental right to education and sent the case back to trial. The case was then set to be reheard by the full Sixth Circuit Court, where the panel’s decision seemed likely to be overturned. However, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer reached a settlement with the students before the rehearing. The settlement led to a Sixth Circuit vote that vacated the panel’s decision, thereby tossing out the possibility of establishing legal precedent for the constitutional right to an education.

Nevertheless, Gary B. v. Whitmer paved the way for Cook v. Raimondo, in which plaintiffs argued that students have a right to a civics education. In this 2018 class action lawsuit filed against the State of Rhode Island, 14 student plaintiffs claimed that the State of Rhode Island was not equipping them with the necessary skills to carry out their civic responsibilities. A year after the case was filed, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy released a 93-page report on the Providence Public School District. This report quantified the plaintiffs’ claims, describing deteriorating buildings, an atmosphere in which students and teachers felt unsafe, and little measurable student learning. District Court Judge William Smith reluctantly dismissed the case on October 13, 2020, on the grounds that the Constitution does not grant his court the power to rectify this flaw in the education system.

With cases like Gary B. v. Whitmer and Cook v. Raimondo, it is clear that conversations surrounding the federal right to education are garnering public support. Accepting education as a constitutional right would surely prompt a slew of legal questions. However, taking the steps to answer these questions is not only worthwhile but necessary for the United States to ensure a well-educated citizenry in the future.