Why Isn’t Education a Constitutional Right?

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are our unalienable rights. But where does education fit in? It may be surprising, but the right to a quality education is not considered a constitutional right in the United States, even though it is included in all 50 states’ constitutions. To understand why, we’ll investigate the history and regard of education as a constitutional right here in the US, and abroad.

The History of Education as a Constitutional Right

During the reunification of the former Confederacy and the Union states, Congress made it a requirement that the Southern states include education as a right in their constitutions. This condition was explicit, and in fact, three states were denied entry to the Union until they corrected their omission of education as a right. During this time, Congress released a report from the Committee on Education that even expressed “…that the general and universal diffusion of education and intelligence among the people is the surest guarantee of the enhancement, increase, purity and preservation of great principles of republican liberty.” This is a powerful statement and a clear recognition of the importance of education in a country. Still, though, education is not mentioned in our federal constitution.

Education as a Right Internationally

Education is considered a human right by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the  International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Education is also included in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – a human rights treaty that describes the rights to which children are entitled. Remarkably, the United States is the only member country that has yet to ratify the treaty. Additionally, 193 countries mention “education” in their constitutions – including all 30 countries that outrank the US in math and science test scores. One of the benefits of this inclusion is, according to Pearson, the creation of a national culture of education, and the recognition that “the cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own.”

Education in the Courts

Almost every US state has been involved with a lawsuit based on education inequality. However, only one such case has made it to the Supreme Court. San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez was a case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the way states distribute funding for schools is not unconstitutional, because there is no basis for the assertion that education is a right under the U.S. Constitution. The case was brought forth by a group of (mostly Latino) parents that charged the state with violating constitutional rights by providing more resources to wealthier school districts than to low-income districts. This ruling by the Supreme Court is regarded by some as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions since 1960. “It played a major role in creating the separate and unequal schools that exist today,” says Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of California.

Many scholars point out that the omission of education from our nation’s constitution is not an oversight – it is intentional. It has been a long-held belief that education should be locally controlled and defined by each state. Leaving education out of the federal constitution, though, ignores the responsibility of the government to ensure all of America’s children, no matter where they live, are provided the opportunity for an education that will prepare them not only for a successful career but to become a productive and informed citizen.

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