Policy Documents

What the Constitution Says About Education

Ben Boychuk –
September 16, 2010

Survey after survey shows Americans know less than they think about their Constitution—as damning an indictment of U.S. public education as any government “metric” or middling outcome on an international test. But the most damning indictment of all may be the belief that education is, or ought to be, a constitutional right.

In fact, the Constitution—which we celebrate on September 17, the day the framers signed the new document after months of careful if contentious deliberation—says nothing about public education. Not a word. And it’s a good thing, too. The Constitution defines and limits the power of government, a fact barely understood today.

That education is essential to good citizenship cannot be denied. That public education should be micromanaged through the supreme law of the land is another matter entirely. Comprehending why education appears nowhere in the Constitution is a key to understanding why the American experiment in self-government is at once so brilliant and so fragile.

The 39 brave, farsighted individuals who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 crafted a constitution to establish a strong central government empowered to do certain jobs that the states could not manage effectively on their own. These duties included making sure to provide a common defense, for example, and to ensure that a contract signed in one state is binding in another.

But the framers also understood that there were many more jobs the federal government could not do better than the states, and hence should not do. Education was foremost among them.

Education is necessarily a state and local concern. Most states, in fact, include education among several rights guaranteed in their constitutions. But even if the subjects of education are the same everywhere—two plus two equals four in Anchorage, Alaska just as it does in Bangor, Maine—the needs and the character of any given community are often quite different from others’. We elect school boards because we believe local oversight is better than deference to far-flung bureaucracies. And parents know what their children need better than officials in distant capitols. Even if we accept the need for state academic standards, that doesn’t preclude the need for local accountability.

If people are now seeing education as more of a job for the federal government, it may be because the schools have done such a poor job of educating people about their rights—and about the limits the Constitution places on government. A recent poll by the American Revolution Center in Philadelphia, for example, found more than half of those surveyed misidentified the system of government established in the Constitution as a direct democracy rather than a republic. (The question appears on all U.S. naturalization tests.)

Even more troubling were the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in civics, which found most of the nation’s high school seniors had only a “basic knowledge” of American government and a “limited understanding” of how it works.

The result of such a limited understanding is an accumulation of power in Washington, DC at the expense of state and local authority and responsibility.

Two decades ago the nation’s central government contributed approximately 5 percent of the funds devoted to public education in the United States. Today it’s closer to 19 percent and growing.

The Obama administration envisions a federal bureaucracy soon developing national tests and certifying public schools’ curricula, for the first time ever. Federal bureaucrats would dictate what children all across the nation will read and how long they will read it. Local school administrators would become mere federal apparatchiks, regardless of who signs their paychecks. Locally elected school boards would be obsolete. Parents would have fewer and fewer choices for educating their kids.

And this massive accumulation of power without accountability would occur in the absence of any explicit constitutional authority.

Too many Americans, and their elected leaders, labor under the belief that there is no problem the federal government cannot “solve.” In reality, the problem of public education only worsens the more federal bureaucrats interfere. If Americans revere the Constitution as much as we’d like to think, we’ll put a stop to this usurpation of state and local accountability—and soon.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@heartland.org) is managing editor of School Reform News.