By Matt Stieglitz
A few weeks ago, the Obama administration outlined its “steps” for improving Latino education, including: $4 billion school improvement grants; a request for additional Head Start and Early Head Start funding; and a program to train more Latino teachers. Most importantly, “mechanisms” are being put in place to significantly boost the college degree attainment of Latinos by 2020. While these initiatives are sure to make inroads for some, Latino students are so far behind the 8-ball that we can’t afford to continually see band-aids applied to wounds needing stitches. Obviously, reform is needed. In that light, it’s time for the Obama administration to do what no other administration has ever done: get a constitutional amendment passed that establishes equal education as a fundamental right.
Yes, I’m proposing the radical notion that we make equal education a right just like bearing arms is. It may come as a surprise to some that ‘education’ is not listed anywhere in the US constitution, or in any amendment we have passed since the constitution’s ratification. Arguably a byproduct of decentralized government and a time when any form of schooling was truly a privilege, the founding fathers (surprise, surprise) failed to foresee what education would be like today. However, this doesn’t mean the topic has never been broached. In the early 1970s, a group of low-income Latino parents sued their school district because of the inequitable education their children received compared to affluent students. The case, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, went all the way to the Supreme Court with the legal team for Rodriguez crafting a simple, and fairly intuitive strategy: education should be a fundamental right. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court disagreed, and ruled that current school financing systems, (i.e. the ones where poor kids of color receive subpar education because of where they live) are in fact constitutional.
The case should have been a slam dunk for education advocates, but instead we were told education is a privilege, not a right. The fallout: legalization of all of the inequity that we see today. Had the case been decided differently, it’s conceivable there would be no achievement gap because states and districts would have a constitutional obligation to provide equal education. It’s almost impossible to picture a world in which the courts tell school boards “I don’t care if you have to sell naming rights to your highways, find a way to equitably fund your schools!” Failure to do so would result in courts taking over schools much like they did after desegregation was ordered, and students would not be disadvantaged upon entering a classroom based on where they live.
But in America, we get to plunge forward in the 21st century knowing that our education system is inadequate. We move forward knowing that schools are approaching segregation levels that mirror the Brown v. Board of Education era, with Latinos being the most segregated student demographic in the country. And we move forward enduring a harsh reality that more and more of our citizenry is unemployable, with Latinos leading the way in dropouts resulting in the increased likelihood of ending up on welfare or in prison. Consequently, all people can seem to agree on in the face of this injustice is that the system is broken. After that, there’s no consensus on how to fix the problem, or where the burden to do so lies.
We’ll always have those who think throwing money at the problem will work. Or those who say improve teacher education but aren’t willing to pay a higher salary for teachers. Or those who debate curricula, and whether education needs to be nationalized much like it is in ALL of the developed countries ahead of us. Further complicating these debates are the power of teacher unions, decentralization of education provision, wealth inequity, mediocre teacher preparation in colleges, and apathy, all of which wouldn’t matter if education were a fundamental right. In that world, the mantra would be simple: get the job done! Instead, the absence of a fundamental right to equal education leaves most people, when given the chance, avoiding the debate altogether. They send their children to the best private schools if they can, and leave public education problems to those who don’t have such luxury. I don’t blame them, because all parents really want is the best for their children. But for those sentenced to public schools, a constitutional amendment to education might be their only hope in the wake of all of our education disagreements today.
In closing, no matter what people disagree on when it comes to education, what they can’t say is that it’s unimportant. It is directly tied to the economic viability of this nation, and for Latinos it is directly tied to where we as a people are going. Furthermore, we must remind ourselves that the debate needs to be about the students. Thus, if the Obama administration really wants to make a difference in education, it should start with making equality of education a constitutional amendment. Such a move would be more than symbolic because it would outlaw the inequity that we see today, and could let litigation begin that would allow us get to the heart of the problem. Now, it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Obama only now decides to address Latino education after recently wining and dining the cast of “Latino Celebrity Apprentice” for immigration reform. The 2012 election is right around the corner, and Obama needs his votes. If this prioritization is indicative of his true feelings towards Latino issues, then it might be better to start lobbying Congress for this amendment, because his timing is unacceptable.
Matthew Stieglitz received his BA in Communication from the University of Delaware and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Cornell University. He is currently a 2014 Juris Doctor candidate at Northeastern University School of Law and his main areas of interest include education policy and US-Cuba relations.