Making education a fundamental right would be a significant step in perfecting our democracy. The fact is that education represents more of a dividing line than in the past, in terms of access to good jobs, being a responsible citizen (e.g., the ability to evaluate ballot initiatives and candidate’s platforms, and to serve on juries), and full participation in our civil society. While the wide disparities that we have tolerated in education have always been immoral, more than ever before education is the dividing line between enjoying the boundless opportunities that are present in this country or life on the margins.
The biggest obstacle to creating a fundamental right to education is the lack of belief that everyone is capable and worthy of getting an education. The corollary to this is the pervasive – and wrong – belief that public education is doing a fine job right now, and that the real problem is students’ lack of ability or motivation or other external factors that schools are powerless to confront. The public simply does not understand the extent to which opportunities in public education are systematically withheld from students of color and students growing up in poverty. In the main, Americans believe that educational attainment is currently distributed based on merit, and this deep-seated notion is incredibly difficult to challenge.
To instill education as a fundamental right will require Americans to come to terms with the fact that there is much more we should be doing to educate young people right now. The current political situation exacerbates the lack of understanding – leaders who normally stand up for children are often defensive when it comes to critiquing public schools, and leaders who champion school reform are often those who are seen as least likely to look out for the interests of low-income students and students of color. A serious campaign to make education a fundamental right will require leaders who can speak honestly to the American people about the need and the ability to educate all of our young people, and the shortcomings of the systems we have right now.