Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Continuing Imperative For Educational Equity

By Michael A. Rebell — April 24, 2002 7 min read
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Will the war against terrorism permanently deflect America's resources from democratic education reform?

Many people are concerned that the war against terrorism may permanently deflect America’s resources and political will from democratic education reform. Recent trends in cases on fiscal equity and education adequacy, however, effectively counter this pessimism, and confirm the strong connection between public education and a flourishing democracy. Increasingly, courts are defining the constitutional standard for education in terms of the skills and knowledge students need for effective civic engagement. These rulings reflect a continuing and accelerating historical trend, which firmly indicates that equal educational opportunity for all students is one of our nation’s critical core democratic values.

In its famous 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court emphasized “the importance of education to our democratic society.” After noting that education is “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments,” the court concluded: “It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” Accordingly, the court held that each state, in providing the opportunity for education, must make it available “to all on equal terms.”

The Supreme Court’s equation of education and democracy was based both on its thorough examination of the development of public education in 19th-century America and on a recognition of the enhanced significance of education in contemporary times. Despite the court’s strong stance in Brown, its vision of equal educational opportunity is still, of course, far from being realized. Over 70 percent of African-American and Latino public school students in the United States currently attend predominantly minority schools. Moreover, the inner-city schools attended by most of these minority students receive substantially less funding and have fewer qualified teachers, larger classes, and vastly inferior facilities than schools attended by more affluent white students in the surrounding suburbs.

Despite the slowdown in progress toward desegregation in recent years, plaintiffs’ astounding success in recent education adequacy litigation—winning 18 of 28 major decisions of the states’ highest courts in the past 12 years—is evidence of an inexorable egalitarian dynamic in America’s political and legal culture, which, when it meets resistance in one direction, will reassert itself with renewed vigor in another.

Early expectations of an immediate realization of equality of educational opportunity in the months following Brown represented the euphoria of the moment of doctrinal triumph, rather than a sober assessment of the remedial realities. Viewed in historical perspective, however, what is truly significant is the extent to which Brown has remade the legal landscape by activating a continuing legal onslaught that relentlessly chips away at the huge underlying problems of unequal funding, concentrated poverty, and racism that have always been the major barriers to educational opportunity.

One of the most potentially significant aspects of the recent adequacy decisions is their linking of contemporary concepts of school reform to the dynamic implications of the common school movement of the 19th century. Most of the state constitutional provisions upon which the adequacy decisions are based were, in fact, written at that time, and they represented a constitutional codification of the common school movement’s success in replacing the prior patchwork pattern of town schools partially supported by parental contributions, church schools, “pauper schools,” and private schools, with a new model of a democratic school for a new nation.

As Newton Edwards and Herman Richey write in The School in the American Social Order (Houghton Mifflin, 1963), the common school movement was driven by those who had “an almost naive faith in the power of education to reduce poverty and distress, to prevent child delinquency and crime, and to promote the well-being of the individual, the intelligent use of the franchise, and the welfare and stability of the state.” It was, at the same time, strongly opposed by those who believed that “education gave rise, on the part of those born to inferior positions, to futile aspirations; that class distinctions made for social cohesion ... [and] that no state could long withstand the financial strain involved in maintaining free schools. ...”

Resistance to this reform was at times so strong that, as the education historian Ellwood P. Cubberley contended in Public Education in the United States (Houghton Mifflin, 1919), “Excepting the battle for the abolition of slavery, perhaps no question has ever been before the American people for settlement which caused so much feeling or aroused such bitter antagonisms.”

The culmination of the fierce battle to implement the new common schools was the incorporation in dozens of state constitutions of provisions guaranteeing the establishment of “a system of free common schools in which all the children in the state may be educated,” or the assurance of a “thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”

By the end of the 19th century, however, the dynamic force of the common school movement seemed spent. “Systems” of public schools were established in virtually all states, but, in many districts, these schools did not “thoroughly” assure a consistent quality of educational opportunity to all students—certainly not to the descendants of the slaves, who were not encompassed within the original common school vision, or the children of the immigrant hordes, who came to populate many urban schools at the beginning of the 20th century.

Through most of the past century, the substantive guarantees of equal educational opportunity contained in the state common school clauses were viewed as rhetorical or aspirational concepts. The adequacy movement of recent years has, though, reawakened political interest in the original common school ideals—and generated legal mandates geared finally to realizing the original intent of the movement’s founders.

The Kentucky Supreme Court, for example, in its decision in Rose v. Council for Better Education Inc., quoted extensively from the comments of the delegates to the 1891 state constitutional convention and concluded that their intent was to ensure that “the boys of the humble mountain home stand equally high with those from the mansions of the city. There are no distinctions in the common schools, but all stand upon one level.”

Civic participation in the 21st century requires ‘capable’ voters and jurors who can understand complex issues.

The courts have understood that this egalitarian ethic must be applied in a contemporary context: As the New Hampshire Supreme Court put it in its decision in Claremont School District v. State of New Hampshire, “Given the complexities of our society today, the state’s constitutional duty extends beyond mere reading, writing, and arithmetic. It also includes broad educational opportunities needed in today’s society to prepare citizens for their role as participants and as potential competitors in today’s marketplace of ideas.”

The committee that drafted New York state’s education clause in 1894 seemed to be consciously communicating across the ages, as its words resonate with special significance for the generation that experienced the terrors of Sept. 11, 2001: “Whatever may have been their [the common schools’] value heretofore ... their importance for the future cannot be overestimated. The public problems confronting the rising generation will demand accurate knowledge and the highest development of reasoning power more than ever before; ... too much attention cannot be called to the fact that the highest leadership is impossible without intelligent following, and that the foundation of our educational system must be permanent, broad, and firm if the superstructure is to be of real value.”

Responding to this call, Justice Leland DeGrasse, the New York state judge who ruled last year in CFE v. State of New York, held that civic participation in the 21st century requires “capable” voters and jurors who can understand complex issues like campaign-finance reform and DNA evidence, and workers “with computer skills who are literate, can write, and are well- grounded in science and mathematics.” And it is the schools’ constitutional responsibility to provide all students with a true opportunity to develop these “foundational skills.”

State courts’ increasing insistence that all students be provided an adequate education as defined by the skills they need to be capable citizens in a 21st-century society renews both the civic and egalitarian premises of the common school movement and the equal-opportunity promise of the Brown decision. Reflecting as it does the unbreakable bond between public education and a thriving democracy, the adequacy movement thus has the potential to advance democratic reform and equal educational opportunity significantly.

Though post-Sept. 11 funding priorities and revenue shortfalls may temporarily cloud the education landscape, this underlying egalitarian impetus will endure and ensure a brighter future for our nation’s public schools.

Michael A. Rebell is the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and the Access National Network in New York City. The CFE is a New York state education advocacy organization. Access is a national network of lawyers, advocates, and policymakers committed to education reform.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as The Continuing Imperative For Educational Equity


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