Should the Constitution Guarantee That You Have the Right to an Education?

faultlinesedright1You’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.

faultlinesedright2In 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?


  1. Connecticut is, to my knowledge, the only state that guarantees equal education intra-district, as a result of the Sheff v. O’Neill case: However, despite a 2016 ruling that would require inter-district equality at the state level that would have upended the brutal practice of local-option budgeting, the CT State Supreme Court disagreed in 2018, stating that minimal constitutional standards of education are being met, even in impoverished districts like Bridgeport, which was recently taken over by the state:

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  2. Well I agree, I believe that the right to an education should be the topic of a twenty-eigth amendment. The fact that we have disregarded this for so long is a shame and have decided to rule against parents and their hopes for a better future for their kids is unbelievable. By not providing education or giving children the right to go to school, we are ultimately inhibiting all their abilities to become what they want. We have eliminated an opportunity for them to learn and explore exciting and new information about the past, the present, and the future. By not including this right in the Constitution, we are basically telling children that they are not good enough to get an education, and that they do not have much of a future to look forward. Many kids who are in public schools simply crave and desire to achieve their goals academically. An education not only facilitates the ability to get a degree, but it teaches kids life lessons on the importance of hard work and perseverance. And we live in a world where degrees and titles are important, and without the proper education and funding necessary to support schools, then it makes it a lot harder for children to move forward. It is difficult to support oneself without an education, because with an education it sets many forward and towards their aspirations. And I think that we should grant everyone that opportunity to reach and work for their goals and dreams. I think that if we do not implement this or even consider adding it in as the twenty-eighth amendment, we have stolen the stepping stone that may open many doors for a better future for the kids, but also for society.

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  3. Education is crucial to securing other basic human rights. It is something that has been ignored for so long and that honestly is disgusting. I am a high schooler that has been raised in a world that increasingly values education. I have always been told that to be successful a college undergraduate education is a bare minimum. I find it extremely important to prioritize education and make it a requirement for all. I agree with Frances; many doors are closed with a lack of education. We are crippling the potential of people in our country and by extension, we are crippling our countries potential. Something has to be done

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    1. Elmer this is so well put. “Crippling the potential” of our countries is exactly right. Thank you for commenting.


  4. Elmer this is so well put. “Crippling the potential” of our countries is exactly right. Thank you for commenting.


  5. Seems to me this is one of those cases where you have to address the distinction between “positive” and “negative” rights.

    Negative rights are of the “nobody can obstruct you from doing X” sort. Freedom of speech, for example: You can speak your mind without fear of punishment, but nobody is obligated to give you a megaphone.

    Positive rights, by contrast, are “somebody has to aid you in doing X” rights. A right to a jury trial, for instance, means the state has to actually provide you with one if you demand it.

    The traditional problem with positive rights is that they become enforceable claims on other people’s resources. If you’ve got a positive right to an education, what if not enough people feel like being teachers? Well, so much for what they feel like doing with their lives, they will be made to be teachers.

    So, which is it? A negative right to an education I can see, but I think we’ve already got that under current 1st amendment doctrine. A positive right to an education? Really bad idea.


    1. This is a classic issue, Brett, one we should possibly write about. It’s hard to imagine that people would be forced to become teachers, though we always need as many as we can get.


      1. That’s the conflict: If you’ve got a *right* to an education, somebody is legally obligated to provide it. What happens if not enough people want to? Or, roughly equivalent, the voters aren’t willing to be subject to high enough taxes to pay for it? The courts impose taxes?

        One person’s positive right, if actually enforceable, is always somebody else’s loss of liberty. If you’ve got a right to the cake, the baker is no longer free.

        Advocates of positive rights generally don’t like to think about the implications of taking them seriously.


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