School & District Management Opinion

An Education Bill of Rights

By Peter W. Cookson Jr. — January 21, 2009 6 min read

In 1944, when it was becoming clear that the Allies would defeat Germany and Japan, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned his attention to what victory ought to mean for the American people. Despite the military successes of the United States, Americans were still struggling with economic hardship; the underlying problems that had deepened the impact of the Great Depression remained unresolved. F.D.R. wanted America to regain its social health; he wanted to make the country whole again.

Nearly 80 years after the stock market crash of 1929, the United States is today confronting many of the same economic and social issues. We face unprecedented challenges that will require us to think broadly and deeply about the meaning of justice and opportunity. Any national conversation about what will make America strong and socially healthy must now, as in Roosevelt’s time, include a serious commitment to public education. And with a new president and a new Congress, we have both the opportunity and the obligation to re-create public education for a new century.

President Roosevelt recognized 65 years ago that in addition to political rights, Americans have social and economic rights. In his Jan. 11, 1944, message to Congress on the State of the Union, he proposed a “Second Bill of Rights,” declaring that every American is entitled to the following:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

We need to secure these basic rights today as much as we needed to define them in 1944. The need is perhaps even greater now, after a decade or more of free-market extravagance. And the final “right to a good education” is of utmost importance. Public education must be the centerpiece of any economic-revitalization effort. The right to a good—a truly world-class—education is now more crucial than ever before because, without the ability to problem-solve, think critically and creatively, and develop lifelong learning skills, our children and their children will face a bleak economic and social future.

Yet the data tell us that this right is being withheld from many U.S. children. When roughly 50 percent of youths from poor families drop out of high school before graduating, we have strong prima facie evidence of the denial of Roosevelt’s “right to a good education.”

In one sense, all of our children are being denied their right to a good education. The system remains mired in outdated curricula, antiquated teaching practices, and federal policies more intent on punishing than supporting public schools. We stand on the threshold of the greatest educational revolution in human history, yet we dither and hope we can patch together our 19th-century school system in time to meet the needs of the 21st.

The argument for a strong system of public schools is compelling: Every child should be able to maximize his or her talents, no matter that child’s race, ethnicity, social class, geographic location, or particular learning needs. Moreover, every child is entitled to a quality education in a safe, supportive, and, yes, intellectually challenging environment. This helps not only the individual, but also the country as a whole.

An Education Bill of Rights, similar to F.D.R.'s declaration of 1944, would guarantee every American child a world-class, 21st-century education. It might look something like this:

Every student is entitled to:

The right to a neighborhood public school or a school of choice that is funded for excellence;

The right to physical and emotional health and safety;

The right to have his or her heritage, background, and differences honored, incorporated in study, and celebrated in the culture of the school;

The right to develop individual learning styles and strategies to the greatest extent possible;

The right to an excellent and dedicated teacher;

The right to a school leader with vision and educational expertise;

The right to a curriculum based on relevance, depth, and flexibility;

The right of access to the most powerful educational technologies;

The right to fair, relevant, and learner-based evaluations;

The right to complete requirements for high school graduation no matter what the student’s economic and social circumstances.

Of course, rights must be balanced with responsibilities. It is the responsibility of families to support their children in every way possible, and of government to give every family the opportunity to do this. For that to happen, Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights must be translated into government policies that help provide families with housing, safety, food, transportation, public recreation, and access to high-quality health facilities, among other needs.

There are those who honestly believe that education should be local, particularistic, and reflect the aspirations and prejudices of the community. From my perspective, we can no longer afford the luxury of this outdated conception. Our families and their children are members of the international community, whether we recognize it or not. Our greatest challenges may have consequences at the local level, but their causes originate at the global level. Young people today are increasingly mobile—we simply cannot afford to keep educating them for a parochial world that no longer exists. Either the great tsunami of globalization will sweep us up in its path or we will ride it to a new future.

Implementation of an Education Bill of Rights will require a strong, honest, and functional federal government. Americans are schizophrenic about the power of government, but when it really matters, in terms of defense, the economy, and foreign affairs, there is no question about delegating to the federal government the authority to act on our behalf. Through checks and balances, we expect efficiency and honesty. To meet the challenges of this century and beyond, the federal government’s role in implementing an Education Bill of Rights will have to be strengthened.

The U.S. Department of Education will have to operate in much the same way as the departments of Defense, Treasury, and State. There can be no real reformation of education without a strong federal presence in funding, coordination, research, and evaluation. This means that the Education Department must be strengthened; it needs to become an exemplary agency of the federal government with the highest political and administrative standards, mandated to carry out an Education Bill of Rights.

We are living in an era of hope and change. Without embracing a national vision and an Education Bill of Rights, we may fail to seize the creative moment and fall further behind—not only in global economic competition, but also in the fulfillment of the American dream.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as An Education Bill of Rights


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