A Constitutional Right to Education Fulfills Our Democratic Promise
Somewhere in inner-city Detroit, a seventh grader, whose school is closed due to the ongoing pandemic, stares blankly at her science worksheets. Reading at the third-grade level, she does not understand the assignment and without a home internet connection, she cannot reach her teacher for help. Instead, she settles into the couch and flicks on cartoons.
That student – like all American children – deserves a full and quality education. Like many others, she is not getting one and the problem predates the schools’ shutdown due to COVID-19.
Fortunately, a Detroit schoolchild like her went to court and argued she not only “deserves” an education that enables her to attain literacy, she has a “right” to one. A federal appeals court agreed.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision late last month in Gary B. v. Whitmer represents a watershed moment in American education and, if it stands, could transform American society for generations to come.
The decision sets the stage for parents, students, teachers, and advocates in the Sixth Circuit’s states and potentially beyond to fight back against policy makers and leaders who fail to provide proper resources for learning. Failing to provide the education children need to attain literacy could no longer just be against commonsense, it could be against the law.
The Court ruled that the US Constitution guarantees a fundamental right to the “facilities, teaching, and educational materials” that enable students to attain the literacy needed to participate in democracy. The ruling that a basic minimum education is both deeply rooted in our nation’s history and traditions and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty” is a precedent that will reverberate through legislatures and classrooms alike.
The implications for our society and democracy could not be more profound and for millions of under-resourced students, like the plaintiffs in Detroit, the decision could prove life-changing, particularly because literacy as a guiding principle is supported by thought leaders on the left and the right.
With two-thirds of high school drop-outs not voting in the 2016 election, guaranteeing each child the fundamental right to the education that they need to participate in our democracy is essential for good government. Students need access to the courses, facilities and teachers that provide the analytical and reasoning skills that they will need to comprehend candidates’ complex legal and policy proposals, ballot initiatives, and the fiscal impacts of those political decisions.
All citizens must demand that schools offer learning opportunities that equip students to engage effectively with their government. A federal right to education provides one the best ways to achieve this. Our national interest in an educated citizenry requires that the federal government safeguard our ability to select, on an informed basis, political leaders responsive to “we the people” rather than “we the affluent.”
Today’s pandemic-induced educational gaps are shocking. In wealthier schools, more than half of teachers report interacting with students at least once a day. In contrast, in poorer schools, only a third of teachers directly interact with their students on a daily basis. Despite widespread school closures, only two-thirds of students in high-poverty school districts are participating in virtual learning compared to 88% of students in wealthier districts.
But educational opportunity gaps are longstanding and deep-seated, often falling along the lines of race, class and neighborhood. Sadly, they are widening as many under-resourced districts have effectively stopped educating their students for the school year.
The dismal conditions that characterize Detroit schools — unqualified teachers, outdated or nonexistent textbooks, and facilities infested with vermin and malfunctioning heating and air conditioning — are emblematic of what many poor and minority children experience. Most states neglect educational equity. When the lion’s share of educational funding and resources are distributed, these children are left behind.
State courts have been largely ineffective in holding states accountable for decades of educational neglect when schoolchildren and their families have sued them in state court. Despite some modest funding gains and improvements, state funding decisions too often tinker at the margins of reshaping educational opportunities in ways that would work for all children, rather than only for the children of the privileged and powerful.
States, who are increasingly being sued in federal court for failing to deliver an adequate education, should take heed. A federal judge in Rhode Island, is reviewing a similar lawsuit to the Gary B. case that alleges that children there are being denied an education that prepares them to engage in political and civic life. In Connecticut, schoolchildren and parents, trapped in failing schools, allege that their constitutional rights have been violated. After Gary B. v. Whitmer, Michigan must now defend Detroit schools’ shocking conditions at trial if they refuse to settle the litigation.
Our democracy is the true winner if parents and schoolchildren begin to demand a right to a basic education. Fuller and fairer participation in our great American democracy fulfills our republic’s promise to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
With a right to education in hand, the power dynamic between the powerful interests and the disenfranchised, powerless, and poor can be restructured. The latter now possess a legal right to demand equity and proper resources.
The decision empowers parents and advocates in the states covered by the ruling to compel state legislatures and school boards to provide effective teachers, sound facilities, and up-to-date course materials. Citizens also must demand that states and districts close the opportunity gaps for poor and minority schoolchildren and equip all children to fully participate in our democracy.
A constitutional right to education is a long-time coming, but could not come too soon for the well-being of America’s school children and the fulfillment of our democratic ideals.