Education Opinion

‘The National Responsibility’ For Equality of Educational Opportunity

By John Hope Franklin — October 31, 1984 11 min read

The need to solve the problems of education in this country is as urgent today as it ever was. Whether one is talking about public or private education, lower or higher education, the need is critical. First, we lack sufficient material resources to provide the physical equipment and the teaching personnel that are required. In cities with gleaming skyscrapers and bustling industries, the schools are too frequently ramshackle, run-down, substandard accommodations unworthy of those who seek to learn within their walls. Second, we lack the faith in the value of education, except in its most mundane application; and because of that, our commitment to the general educational enterprise is less than enthusiastic. Finally, we seem to have no clear notion of where responsibility for education really resides--at the local, state, or national level--and we equivocate, vacillate, even speculate, about which level has the greater responsibility.

The question of responsibility was not always a problem in this country. The legislative bodies of colonial Massachusetts and Connecticut enacted laws in the 17th century requiring every town with 50 inhabitants or more to support a public school. If some did not comply, it was not because of lack of clarity in the legislation or lack of parental interest. Rather, it was because of extremely limited resources or because children were needed to work on family farms and in shops. It must have been extremely painful to parents and legislators to see their schools languish, for their commitment to education could hardly be questioned. “We in this country,” said Jonathan Mitchell in the middle of the 17th century, “being far removed from the more cultivated parts of the world, had need to use utmost care and diligence to keep up learning. ..”


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During the early years of the independence movement, education remained a responsibility of local government, and the general commitment to education was greater than ever. Even before the War for Independence was over, new state constitutions, forged in the crucible of war, reiterated the importance of education and the need to spread it everywhere. These were among the earliest expressions of the desirability of viewing education in national terms. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 stated the matter eloquently: “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue,” it said, “diffused generally among the people and being necessary for the preservation of the rights and liberties,” it was imperative that the government spread “the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country and among the different orders of the people.” The thinking that went into this statement--and, indeed, the statement itself--is as valid today as it was two centuries ago.

Unfortunately, the patriots had their inconsistencies and lapses in the field of education as in other areas. Consequently, they did not find it necessary to pay even lip service to such ideas as equal educational opportunity or universal education. Women were not included in the many expressions of solicitude about the general diffusion of knowledge. Afro-Americans, slave and free, simply could not have any educational opportunity that might lead to their enjoyment of the rights and privileges for which they also had fought during the War for Independence. Native Americans most assuredly were not in the educational plans of the states or the new national government.

These conditions, which deprived a considerable portion of the population of an opportunity to learn, reflected a flawed social and political orientation of the country generally. As a result, women would still be waging the battle for equality not only in education but in every aspect of life down to the twilight years of the 20th century. Black Americans would first seek to repeal the laws that held them in bondage and then would wage an uphill struggle against the numerous barriers placed in their way because of their race and color. For three centuries and more, Native Americans would seek to throw off the stigma of being aliens in their own land and then fight against the contention that they were unteachable, uncivilized savages.

As the nation grew in age and experience and as the people spread over the vast lands, many of them became more sensitive to the relationship of education to democratic institutions. They began, also, to work out justifications and strategies for the support of education on a national basis. They were keenly aware that the government, under the new Constitution, did not assume responsibility for education. Yet, the new government had recognized its critical importance by including the provisions that had been made in the Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 for the maintenance of schools in every township and for the encouragement of education.

Having committed itself to a major role in higher education, the federal government might have been expected logically to take another major step.

This sufficed, perhaps, until 1862, when the federal government committed itself much more specifically to some responsibility for education. That year, Senator Justin Morrill sponsored the bill setting aside certain public lands in each state for the benefit of education in the fields of agriculture and the mechanical arts.

Having committed itself to a major role in higher education, the federal government might have been expected logically to take another major step. It did not. Instead of providing resources from land or minerals for the support of secondary or elementary education, or both, it took a step much less bold, if somewhat innovative. In 1867, it established the United States Office of Education, which was charged with collecting “such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the several states and territories.” The office published hundreds of monographs and reports between 1867 and its demise in 1980.

As the Office of Education made studies and issued reports, the states developed their own programs of education in any manner they wished. Since the federal government took no active role in policy decisions and gave virtually no support to the states, except to their land-grant colleges, the states did exactly as they pleased. Where racial segregation existed, they made no effort to equalize educational opportunities. In 1900, the per-capita cost of education in Adams County, Miss., was $22.25 for whites and a mere $2 for blacks. And during those years the matter was not an issue in any state or local political campaign and was surely of no concern to the federal government. Negroes themselves were rapidly losing through constitutional disenfranchisement what little political influence they once had. No President, no commissioner of education, no one highly placed in the federal establishment spoke out against these clear violations of the constitutional rights of several million American boys and girls who happened to be black. What was true of blacks was true of Native Americans and, in some cases, of females as well.

In the 20th century, wars and the media were nationalizing forces in American life that led to a degree of uniformity in some areas, such as tastes, tradition, and entertainment, but certainly not in all. In education, little uniformity exists. This is not to imply that a uniform curriculum is beneficial, but rather to suggest that uniformity of opportunity and some semblance of gratifying results may be desirable goals that are too seldom attained. As far as opportunity is concerned, what is there in Arkansas, for instance, to match the Bronx High School of Science in New York or the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics? What is there in Montana or Georgia comparable to the Mark Twain School for gifted children in St. Louis? Are there no children in Arkansas who could profit from the two years of calculus those at the Bronx High School of Science receive? Are there no gifted children in Montana who could benefit from the excitement available to the students in the school for gifted children in St. Louis? What child in this country would not learn more if his or her school had a decent library, despite the fact that the President of the United States seemed proud of the fact that his school in Illinois had no such facility. The point is that there is no one, no apparatus, to monitor the common educational needs of American students. Consequently, some students receive an education with different attractive features or, indeed, with no attractive features.

Not only is there no equality of opportunity in education, there is no equality of resources among school districts. Mississippi and North Dakota cannot build and equip their schools and compete successfully in the marketplace for teachers in the way that, say, New York and Pennsylvania can, for the simple reason that they do not have the resources. How tragic, therefore, if the brightest young boy or girl grows up in Mississippi or North Dakota with their limited educational opportunities, while less able children grow up in Westchester County, N.Y., and Bucks County, Pa., with every conceivable educational opportunity.

What is true about unequal opportunities from state to state is true within states and even within communities. Why should county schools provide a better educational opportunity than the city schools? Or vice versa? Why should a youngster living on one side of town be privileged to go to a better school than one living on the other side?

It has been argued with considerable force that one of our clear national responsibilities is to provide equal educational opportunities for disadvantaged children, which often means black children and white children below the poverty level. Of course such children need the support and protection of the strongest possible arm--the federal government. To deprive such children of the right to every educational opportunity available for any other child is to place insurmountable barriers in their way and sentence them to a life of continued disadvantage. But any child--white or black, rich or poor--who does not have access to the best education the nation can afford is disadvantaged and deserves the support and protection of his or her federal government.

Nothing I have said should be interpreted as advocating a national system of education.

When the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was established in 1953, it was a significant recognition by the federal government that it had an important, definable responsibility in the area of education. It was an unequivocal commitment to study, monitor, and, yes, to make available a considerable portion of its enormous resources in the effort to improve the quality of education and to equalize educational opportunities among the various segments of our society. Doubtless this sense of responsibility was quickened by the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and also in the attempt to catch up with the Soviet Union in the post-Sputnik years. The year after the establishment of hew, the federal government spent $355 million on public elementary and secondary schools. By 1978, the figure had increased to $6.5 billion. Without doubt, these dollars met an urgent need, and most school boards said, “Keep the dollars rolling in.”

Shortly thereafter, the federal role in the educational process came under close scrutiny and, finally, bitter attack. The fight reached a climax during the debates over the proposal to establish a federal Education Department with Cabinet status. At that point, all of the pent-up hostility to “big government” control of local affairs was vented on the proposed department. There were already too many federal bureaucrats meddling in education, the opponents argued. Washington would merely ruin our quite satisfactory school systems, they insisted. The department would politicize educational programs in the worst possible way. How could anyone who sincerely believed in the American educational system countenance a federal department?

The new Education Department barely had time to organize itself before it became a storm center in the Presidential campaign of 1980. With the incumbent President a staunch supporter and the Republican nominee a firm opponent, the lines were drawn. And when the new President appointed a former commissioner of education as his secretary of education, some concluded that his single assignment would be to preside over the dissolution of the Education Department. It was not long before the President, and perhaps even his secretary of education, saw in the department a marvelous opportunity to infuse the entire American educational enterprise not with badly needed resources or even welcome suggestions regarding reforms in the curriculum, but with strong advice about the importance of local control, the value of merit pay for teachers, prayer in the schools, and placing a teacher in outer space. The department, whose days were numbered in 1981, is flourishing today as a strong political right arm of “The New Beginning.”

Intentionally, I have not addressed certain deplorable conditions in our schools: violence, drugs, assaults on teachers, strikes, hostility among school boards, administrative personnel, and teachers. I preferred to give attention to the problem of the framework in which our schools must live or die. It seems to me that the best chance to get at the problems and solve at least some of them is to place them in a national context and impose on them a national responsibility. They cannot be solved on a local basis any more than they can be solved in a vacuum. They are so critically important to the future of this country that they deserve to be attacked with all the power and resources at our command. The talent, experience, and material resources needed for their solution can only be commanded by the nation as a whole, acting through its national agencies such as the federal government.

Nothing I have said should be interpreted as advocating a national system of education. That would not be in keeping with the spirit and tradition of this country. But substandard schools, ill-paid teachers, poor equipment, students without equal opportunity, and educational programs that are pointless and fruitless are not in keeping with the spirit and tradition of this country either. We need a total approach to these problems and their solution. That, in turn, requires the assumption of responsibility by all of us; and that means a national responsibility.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 1984 edition of Education Week as ‘The National Responsibility’ For Equality of Educational Opportunity