Article Ø, Section Ø of the U.S. Constitution: The Right to Public Education

by Michael J. Steudeman
Article Ø, Section Ø of the U.S. Constitution: The Right to Public Education

The interior of the historic “Freeman School,” in Nebraska. Photo by US NPS.

Assistant Professor
Director of CAS100, Dept. of Communication Arts & Sciences

Among the elites who drafted or inspired the language of the Constitution, it was common to stress the importance of public education to the future of the republic. Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington all publicly argued for some form of publicly funded education. Though they were not at the Convention, influential figures like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams agreed on the importance of schooling to the republic. Adams was unequivocal: “There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the expense of the people themselves.” Their views were by no means idiosyncratic for the time. As the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, legislators in New York guaranteed that “schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged” in the vast region encompassed by the Northwest Ordinance.

There seemed to be wide agreement that schools would be essential to the young nation. Yet the finished Constitution was mum on the topic, and judging from James Madison’s notes, its drafters barely even addressed it. The omission is strange, in part because the inclusion of educational language would have helped to galvanize the Founders’ own educational efforts. From Washington’s call for a National University to Jefferson’s (Madison-backed) proposal for a system of schools in Virginia, many of the Founders’ ambitious educational proposals failed. They likely would have been helped along by explicit constitutional language. Why didn’t they set themselves up for success by placing a guarantee to education in the Constitution?

In part, the absence of an educational guarantee reflected vast disagreements among the Founders about what “education” should do. Franklin’s proposed Academy, for instance, sought to promote economic mobility among the hard-working poor. Rush—the other Benjamin from Philadelphia—hoped a school system could cultivate “republican machines,” deferent citizens who could recognize and sustain a virtuous public. Washington’s envisioned university was intended to prepare a patrician elite for social leadership, whereas Jefferson endorsed a state common school system to discover the “natural aristocracy” scattered among the population. Widely agreed upon in principle, then, “education” was a conflicted concept in practice. Subsequent generations’ struggles over academic standards, students’ civil rights, and religious practices in the classroom attest to just how contentious an idea “education” can be.

Regardless of why the Founders left education out of the Constitution, many scholars, legal experts, and public education advocates argue that they made a grave mistake. Although every state affirms support for public education in its Constitution, states are inconsistent regarding how long students should attend, how schools will be funded, and what quality of learning students should receive. When students in failing state systems try to fight for improved learning conditions, an absence of constitutional language places them on shaky legal ground. For instance, in a case this year advanced by Michigan students, Federal District Judge Stephen J. Murphy concluded that states are not required to “affirmatively provide each child with a defined, minimum level of education by which the child can attain literacy.” In other words: there is no constitutional right to the resources someone needs to learn to read. In the face of decisions like Murphy’s, persistent funding disparities, and growing pressures on educators, a growing chorus aims to make the promise of education explicit in the Constitution.

For recent arguments on a Constitutional right to an education, see: