On the States of Education

By any reasonable measure, the Constitution of the United States is one of the most powerful written documents in human history.  Including signatures, the original text is just 4,543 words in length.  When one adds the twenty-seven amendments, its length increases to 7,591 words.  And yet, that relatively short document provides the linguistic architecture for nothing less than democracy.  

It might surprise you to know, however, that the word education does not appear anywhere in the federal Constitution.  Nor do words like schools, learning, or teaching.  When something is not explicitly written in the Constitution, nor explicitly forbidden, it is passed on for states to deal with (an ingenious mechanism in the Constitution courtesy of the 10th Amendment).  Education is a state-level issue not because the Founders explicitly wrote so, but because they wrote nothing about it at all.

When I learned that education had not been penned into the Constitution, I was shocked. If there’s no national articulation of education’s place in our democracy, doesn’t that mean there could be fifty different definitions of what public education is?  The answer is: yes.  It is possible; it is in fact the case. We have fifty different states defining the purpose of and right to public education fifty different ways.

To be clear, this differs from most other countries to whom the United States is often compared.  Most other industrialized countries have a centralized education model where the purpose of and right to public education is defined and overseen at a national level.  Of course, it’s not to say that such central oversight necessarily leads to better education.  But having a clearly articulated purpose for public education nationally does at least make it possible for stakeholders to be clear on what they are doing and why such an education is important in the first place.

Do you know how your state defines the purpose of and right to public education?

Probably not.  But don’t worry.  I created the interactive map above to help.  You can click on the red flag in each state where you will find an informative popup bubble with two things. First, you’ll find an excerpt from the state’s constitution where it defines the purpose of and/or right to public education.  Second, you’ll see a link to “See the source…” that will take you to the state’s official documentation.  Start with your own state.  See how its constitution defines the purpose of and right to education.  And be sure to leave your insights, questions, and corrections in the comments below! 

Did You Know?

Some states like Idaho define the purpose of and right to education as something essential for a democracy: “The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” Other states can be really vague.

Alabama is probably the starkest example of how powerful and problematic state constitutions can be.  Theirs still states: “Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.”

Though written less forcefully than Alabama’s, the Delaware state constitution slips a clause into their articulation of the purpose of and right to a public education.  It starts with reference to “the establishment and maintenance of a general and efficient system of free public schools.”  Then it guarantees access to public schools for all children–with the exception of children who are “physically or mentally disabled.”  

Technical Notes

The interactive map was created using R with the Leaflet library.  Its data was collected manually based on my scouring states’ websites.  In some cases, it’s not always clear to what extent additional regulations affect the current wording in the states’ constitutions. For example, Alabama’s schools are not as explicitly segregated as its constitution suggests.  Still, the fact that the language is present offers fodder for discussion. In addition, some state websites are confusing and even contradictory.  As a result, the links you see in the rollover bubbles are what I determined to be the most current. If you spy any inaccuracies or updates, please share via the comments feature below.