It’s Time for a Constitutional Right to Education

Cover Image: (Bill O'Leary / The Washington Post)

Public school funding systems are failing to provide equitable education for low-income populations. As the achievement gap between high and low-income areas widens, there is an emerging need for federal protections for all students.

As of 2015, over half of public school students in the United States come from low-income families.

The United States spends about seven percent less per pupil on students in the highest poverty districts than those in the wealthiest. These funding gaps between low and mid to high-income districts occur because of the public school finance system, which heavily relies on property taxes. Due to this method of funding, schools in lower-income areas inevitably collect less tax revenue, resulting in inferior school systems compared to those in higher income areas. Consequently, students in low-income areas tend to enter high school with literacy skills five years behind those of high income students, are exposed to less information about college and financing higher education, and are more likely to have to repeat grades. While many groups have taken this form of public school system financing to court, claiming it is inconsistent with the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment, they have found no success due to the lack of a constitutional basis for the right to education.

In Rhode Island, fourteen students are suing Governor Gina Raimondo over their right to an adequate public secondary education. The plaintiffs of the case Cook v. Raimondo claim that the state of Rhode Island is failing to fulfil its constitutional duty to provide education for all of its citizens. Specifically, the plaintiffs believe that the education, in particular the instruction related to civics education, is so insufficient that the district is, “in essence, preventing people from exercising their constitutional rights, such as forming a legal assembly (as is guaranteed by the First Amendment) or voting (as is guaranteed by the Fifteenth).” However, this is not an issue that affects the entire population of Rhode Island. Instead, students in low-income areas are disproportionately affected by inadequate school systems.

Cases like Cook v. Raimondo have made it to the Supreme Court of the United States in the past. For example, plaintiffs in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez sued Texas for its public school funding system, which is mostly dependent on property tax revenue. The plaintiffs in San Antonio v. Rodriguez claimed that this system of funding violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court decided that the equal protection clause does not “require absolute equality or precisely equal advantages.” Since the United States Constitution does not include a right to education for all citizens, the court was unable to analyze the case with a standard of strict scrutiny. Strict scrutiny is the most common standard used in cases where the government is accused of engaging in some form of unconstitutional discrimination. The substantial shortcomings of the current school funding system, such as the one in San Antonio v. Rodriguez, highlights the reality of class discrimination, and emerging need for a constitutional right to education in the United States.

Many student and education activist groups have made strides for educational equity at the state level. Since elementary and secondary education is primarily a state and local responsibility, most litigation about public education occurs in state courts. However, more and more plaintiffs are beginning to sue state governments in federal courts and basing their arguments on claims about the constitution rather than state law. For example, in Gary B. v. Snyder, residents in Detroit, Michigan are suing their state for failing to properly teach students how to read. According to standardized test results from the area, only about 10 percent of the city’s public school students are proficient in reading. Defense lawyers in this case argue that, “the state is not responsible for the conditions of Detroit schools.” Unfortunately, the federal judge dismissed this case because there is no constitutional guarantee for literacy. In this district,  the child poverty rate is about 48 percent.

However, gaps in education quality tend to be very racialized as well. At a time when schools are more segregated than they have been in the past forty years, race plays a large role in the quality of education a child may receive. This segregation perpetuates the division between rich, white schools and poor, minority ones. Since Brown v Board of Education desegregated schools in 1954, schools in minority neighborhoods have remained inferior to schools in white, suburban districts. In fact, policies to help equalize funding between majority-student of color schools and majority-white schools did not come up until the 1970s. Although these policies have helped students in neighborhoods of color, students in these schools still fall behind. Shockingly, states simply are not funding urban schools where many minority populations reside as much as white, suburban districts. A constitutional right to education could address these funding issues that Brown v. Board never tackled, and perhaps some justice could be restored to school districts in minority neighborhoods.

Income achievement gaps, or the differences in standardized test scores between students in low and high income areas, reveal the failures of school systems in low-income districts. This gap has grown significantly over the past three decades. Historically, schools have been thought of as the “great equalizer,” but the reality of low income school systems has proven this to be incorrect. While education is the key to breaking the poverty cycle, students living in poverty simply are not able to succeed academically.

Students in low-income districts are not only being exposed to inferior education; their experiences in public school disallow the types of opportunities and successes that high-income students perhaps take for granted. Middle class and wealthier students have much easier access to school-provided mental health professionals and up-to-date textbooks, and experience less teacher turnover. Although some children that grew up in these school districts do attend college, only 14 percent of low-income students end up earning a bachelor’s degree or higher. A 2016 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research even found that, “a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all twelve years of public school leads to 0.27 more completed years of education, 7.25 percent higher wages, and a 3.67 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty.”

Simply put, low-income students are not receiving sufficient education and are unable to have fulfilling public school experiences. Many groups, including the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, find that the localization of school financing systems perpetuates this inequality, and that a federal approach could be the solution. As state governments continue to cut public education funding, this achievement gap could become much worse. An amendment to the United States Constitution creating an equal right to education could provide the basis for legal arguments against the current public school funding system. Although it could take years to reform, a shift in school funding could provide remedy for lacking public school systems.

Although all 50 state constitutions guarantee the right to education, the  word ‘education’ does not appear anywhere in the United States Constitution – the highest law of the land. The rights outlined by state constitutions do not necessarily guarantee educational equity. For example, only the state of Montana undertakes “equality of educational opportunity” in its constitution. Furthermore, all of the countries ranked above the United States in terms of education have constitutions that do guarantee a right to education. For example, Finland’s constitution not only guarantees a basic education, but “equal opportunity to receive other educational services in accordance with their ability and special needs, as well as the opportunity to develop themselves without being prevented by economic hardship.”Any movement to guarantee education children of all socioeconomic statuses will not make progress unless it takes steps to address achievement gaps and the way schools are funded. If the United States wants to prioritize public education moving forward, there needs to be a massive shift in the way that the federal government approaches it. Legal battles have continued to fail students in low-income districts. Any hope for social mobility and breaking the poverty cycle must come from educational opportunities. If legislators do not address the core of this issue, low income children will continue to be left behind in the public school system.