You’re probably familiar with the term “Bill of Rights,” even if you’re not positive which right goes with which number. These amendments to the US Constitution were ratified by the states in 1791 after Congress had proposed them (along with two others that weren’t ratified) two years earlier. The first amendment, for instance, guarantees that Congress cannot pass a law that would establish a religion or abridge freedom of speech. The second amendment protects the right of ordinary citizens to keep and bear arms, at least in some circumstances. Later amendments provide other rights, such as the right for all women to vote, granted in the nineteenth in 1920.
Still, the Constitution doesn’t cover all of the rights that some people believe are necessary in the twenty-first century. For example, the Constitution does not provide young people with the right to get an education. Almost every state constitution, on the other hand, does, as do many other countries.
Most public education in this country is provided by states, and many states have been sued for allegedly not meeting these state constitutional guarantees. As a result, decisions by the supreme courts in Kentucky, New Jersey, and Texas have influenced what students learn and how much money school districts get there.
In Michigan, the legislature is required to “maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools.” Seven children in Detroit, who were frustrated with what they thought was their inadequate schooling, recently cited this provision in suing then-Governor Rick Snyder. The judge ruled, in effect, that, while education has to be free, it doesn’t have to be very good. “Access to literacy,” he wrote, is not a constitutional right.” An earlier New York court came up with a similar answer.
In 1968, parents in San Antonio, Texas, sued the school district and the state. Because of the way education funds were distributed, some districts received much more money than others. The parents claimed that this process violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees every person “equal protection of the laws.” Five years later, the US Supreme Court disagreed with the parents and ruled that Texas was free to finance schools however it wished, so long as students were provided with some kind of education.
Looking at such differences between rich and poor schools and good and bad ones, former Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois proposed that the national Constitution be amended to establish “the right of all citizens…to a public education of equal high quality.” He repeated this proposal in every congressional session from 1999 to 2012. One year, thirty-seven other congresspeople signed on as cosponsors. But, every time, it died after being referred to a committee for further study.
Almost every country besides the United States—a total of 174—at least mentions education in their national constitution. And, many guarantee, either in their constitution or by law, that kids have the right to go to school for free. These include all of Northern and Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—the countries whose students score better than Americans do on international tests. One of our nearest neighbors, Cuba, also provides free public education for all.
So far, neither Congress nor the Supreme Court has said that the Constitution should guarantee that children have the right to go to a school that will prepare them for their future. What do you think? Should that be the topic of a twenty-eighth amendment?