Letter: Quality public education as a civil right – InForum
As we look back on our Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations and begin Black History Month, it behooves us all to reflect on the role civil rights played in creating greater fairness, justice and fairness and to ask what more we can do.
Having dedicated my life to advancing opportunity and justice in education, I can think of no more pressing issue facing our nation than eliminating racial and economic disparities in public education. Quality public education is arguably the most powerful tool we have to break the cycle of poverty and create a society in which everyone can fully participate.
Our state has deep and troubling racial disparities. Minnesota’s disparities are evident in health care, housing, and our public education system, which consistently fails to provide children of color, Indigenous children, and low-income white children with a quality education.
Despite decades of effort, we have made no progress in eliminating these disparities. As such, our children are deprived of the benefits that a quality education can bring – good jobs, stable housing and better health outcomes.
Education disparities are a systemic problem that requires systemic change. While each state’s constitution provides for a system of free public schools, and a number of states have strengthened their constitutional provisions over the years, none has made quality public education a civil right.
But, by making quality public education a civil right that belongs to every child, we can transform our education systems.
The power of civil rights
The most powerful and positive changes to advance justice in our nation’s history have come through amending the US Constitution to establish or expand civil rights. From the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, religion and assembly, to the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, to the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, civil rights have transformed our nation over time.
For example, Brown v. School Board was deep in the removal of state-sponsored segregation. In doing so, it spelled the death knell not only for segregation in education, but also in accommodation, travel, leisure facilities and virtually every other aspect of our lives.
However, Chestnut did not rule that education is a civil right and subsequently, in 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that there is no federal civil right to education. Thus, action at the state level is necessary.
Civil rights are a powerful force for change because they create remedies that benefit not just individuals, but everyone. If one child or family fights for change, that change benefits all children and all families.
Education as a civil right
In Minnesota, we have proposed changing our state constitution to put children first by giving every child a fundamental right to a quality public education, and a number of other states are pursuing similar steps. Our proposal would make the realization of this right a primary duty of the state and provide for justification through the courts, if necessary.
By making quality public education a civil right, we empower our democratically elected officials to enact policies that ensure schools educate every child. And by empowering elected officials, we also empower children, families, educators, employers and other stakeholders in our democracy to make the changes needed.
By making quality public education an individual right that belongs to every child, putting children first, we can build a system that maximizes the unique potential of every student. And by making the state a primary duty to realize this right, we are ensuring that every state has no higher priority than supporting public education.
Ensuring Justice and Honoring MLK’s Legacy
We live in a time of deep division in America, but in Minnesota, this issue has united people who often disagree. Like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Minnesota’s Education Amendment is led by a remarkable bipartisan coalition. Our adversaries are largely those who are well served by the status quo, to the detriment of the children left behind.
Now is the time to come together, celebrate Black History Month, and honor Dr. King’s legacy in securing justice in education. Creating a civil right for quality public education for every child, as Dr. King suggested, will “bend the arc of the moral universe” toward justice in all its forms: health justice, housing, economic justice, social justice and racial justice.
Alan Page is co-founder of the Page Education Foundation, which has supported $16 million in scholarships for more than 8,000 students, a retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and Hall of Famer of the NFL. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2018.
This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Forum Editorial Board or the owners of the Forum.