Rights and Obligations
I came across an intriguing article the other day about the fundamental nature of education in this country. In a short essay published by The Atlantic, Stephen Lurie raises the point that, unlike many other Western and Asian nations, the United States does not have a constitutional or statutory provision guaranteeing all children an education. The effects of such a legal provision, Lurie argues, are far-reaching:
By centralizing education as a key focus of the state, these countries establish baseline requirements that set the frame for policy and judicial challenges, as well as contribute to what the Pearson report [ranking national education systems] calls a “culture” of education: where “the cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own.”
Leaving aside the reasons why now is the right time to seek a constitutional amendment to guarantee every child an education—a case that Lurie makes fairly persuasively, in my view—it is hard to take issue with the basic statement of how a legal requirement typically translates to social and moral obligation. In Lurie’s words:
If a true right is established, soft forces and hard law can begin to fundamentally alter the immense flaws of the education system nationwide. This is the exact phenomenon that plays out time and again in other countries—and particularly the ones besting American education. The constitutional guarantee develops a national culture of education, a baseline for rights, and allows—if necessary—for legal protection of that standard.
Despite the absence of a federal statute establishing the right of every child to an education, every individual state has codified the importance of free public schools. While I’m not familiar with all (or many at all) of the 50 such provisions, I would like to call attention to the one from Massachusetts, which I find particularly eloquent:
Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish …public schools and grammar schools in the towns….
The question for us as educators and educational advocates is how to transpose these grand words into a reality that lives up to the rhetoric. How exactly do we “cherish” schools? For me, the answer is simple: we must continually push ourselves to make sure that those schools are not just solid institutions, but that every adult in the building is committed to providing the highest quality education imaginable. Not an adequate education, but the best one. Of course, educators must be provided the tools and resources to make it possible to reach this lofty objective, and having ample time for teaching and learning is high among those.
In my opinion, the most compelling way to think of this commitment is not to frame the matter in institutional or systems-level work, but instead to think of the individual child. As Andrew Bott, principal of the expanded-time Orchard Gardens Pilot School in Boston, reminds us, for every child that walks through the door of a school, this is their one shot at getting an education that will prepare them for success. They have no chance for a do-over. And, indeed, because it is each child’s right to have that education count, it is our obligation to make it so.