Kimberly Jenkins Robinson – A Federal Right to Education

There was a dark side to the democracy of ancient Athens. The sophists were not simply philosophers but also the educators of their time. They exploited the dynamics of the open assembly to teach an empty form of rhetoric without the need for substance as the foundation for their arguments. Indeed, its students learned how to argue both sides of any public question without concern for the consequences of their oratory. Socrates emerged within this environment to emphasize a new school of thought based entirely on reason. In his trial he admitted he lacked any skill in rhetoric but used an approach based in reason with substantive ideas as a defense. For Plato the death of Socrates was a failure not just of democracy but the entire social system it was founded upon. He concluded democracy was incompatible with the ultimate philosophical ideal, truth.

Democracies depend upon the education of its people. An uneducated populace becomes susceptible not just to populist demagogues but also makes the emergence of a technocratic class a necessity. An educated public will challenge authorities when public policy ignores their concerns. Public education is often described as a tool of economic opportunity. It is meant to level the playing field for people of all backgrounds through a meritocratic system based on knowledge and intelligence rather than a natural aristocracy where the affluent isolate their children within the best schools with the best opportunities so that their success becomes nearly predetermined. Many of the scholars in this book such as Linda Darling-Hammond, Rachel F. Moran, Kevin R. Johnson and many others explain how the American educational system fails to offer an equal opportunity for many of its citizens. But there is also an element which is fundamental to democracy.

Institutions naturally reinforce each other. The school system is intended to reinforce the lessons learned at home within the context of the family. And the family is meant to reinforce the education children learn from school. While institutions compartmentalize life into different environments like the workplace, church and home, they blend these different aspects into a homogenous whole described as culture or society. Public schools become a natural extension not just of the state but society itself through a reinforcement of its values in the education of children. Yet this is also why education remains a flashpoint for debate within American politics. Differences in culture, including political culture, across the country make it difficult to offer a centralized educational program. Kimberly Jenkins Robinson emphasizes “the largest disparities in educational opportunity exist between, rather than within, states,” but many of the poorest performing states are the most hostile to federal intervention within education.

There is a fear that a centralized educational system will stifle debate. Some believe a homogenized educational system would naturally lead to the homogenization of political ideas. Political ideas within the United States have peculiar regional distinctions. The construction of the American political system takes these regional distinctions as a given. The great political debates throughout history, including the Civil War, were largely constructed around regional alignments. The decentralization of many political functions reflects the distrust of the compromises necessary for the redistribution of resources across states. There is a fundamental fear within many communities that a federal educational program would reflect national rather than local values.

This book emphasizes many communities lack the resources to execute educational services effectively. Champions of federalism often shame communities with poor performance as mishandling their resources. However, the different authors express over and over the challenge for many schools where the resources per student are far below more affluent communities. They lack not just the resources to educate but the funding to recruit more talented and experienced teachers and principles with the abilities to better manage their limited resources. The mixed results of charter schools have shown better management does not simply depend on greater effort but also the right combination of experience, creativity and insight. The advantage of federalism is the potential for spectacular success, but its disadvantage is the potential for enormous failures. Some public schools offer an educational opportunity which competes favorably with the most exclusive private schools. But it is no surprise they are the domain of the most affluent while the less fortunate are left with a substandard education.

The premise which underscores this book is a quality education is a fundamental right within a democracy. Many of the authors are legal scholars who offer insights on court cases including San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez where the Supreme Court refused to acknowledge a federal right to education. Many authors believe the time has come to revisit this decision with a new challenge while others believe a federal right to education should be obtained through constitutional amendment or even congressional authority. But the book focuses on the rights of the individual rather than the effects on the community. As a result, the book represents a case to expand the ideals of liberalism rather than obligations of governance peculiar to a democracy.

Of course, a common criticism of democratic governance is people lack the intellectual preparation for governance. Roslyn Fuller has challenged this premise and rejected its conclusions. But this worldview may also offer an inverse insight where democracies have the obligation to prepare its citizens for participation in governance. Perhaps democracy does have a unique obligation to educate its citizens more than any other political system. There is a natural relationship between liberalism and democracy where the rights of citizens often align with the obligations of governance within a democracy. Yet there is a subtle distinction between the rights of citizens and the obligations of the state. National defense is rarely described in the language of rights but in the obligations of the state. The strategic importance of a community is irrelevant to the necessity of its defense from foreign invasion. Its occupation becomes a humiliation of the capabilities of the nation. Education ought to become recognized in the same way. No community should be abandoned because it lacks resources or political importance.

The social infrastructure of American society has segregated communities into economic class. Small decisions have slowly compounded one upon another so advantages naturally flow to the affluent and barriers are established to hold back the less fortunate. It is impossible to solve these problems all at once. But this book will open your eyes to disparities in the educational system. Its arguments are dense and often couched in the language of legal scholars. Nonetheless, it evokes the same sense of injustice which Matthew Desmond used in his Pulitzer Prize winning work Evicted that changed the way many viewed the housing epidemic. But ultimately my focus comes back to the ways to strengthen democratic governance. And education has always been a key ingredient for democratic governance. Some form of reform has become necessary because the inability for education to keep pace over time will become a source not just of economic inequality but inevitably lead to political inequality.

jmk, carmel, indiana,

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