The Right to an Education

What does it is mean to have a right to an education? I've been thinking about this, in light of talk this month about the right to free speech.


The First Amendment to the Constitution is the source of our right to free speech. But clearly this is widely misunderstood. Rather, our speech is generally free from government interference, but not even in that it is limited. Though defamation, slander and libel are difficult to prove in court, the government does limit these. There are many limits on commercial speech, as well. On the other hand, our political, artistic, literary and scientific speech are almost entirely free from government interference.

However, the government does not protect our speech from others. We can be fired for what we say. We can be dumped. We can lose friends. We can lose customers. Our freedom of speech is really just about freedom from government interference or regulation of speech. 

On the other hand, there are other freedoms that the government does protect. The government will take action against those who discriminate, for example. We cannot be denied a room at a hotel or a meal at restaurant for the color of our skin or our religion. The federal government will protect that right. We must have a right the same educational opportunities, regardless of our sex. The federal government will protect that right (provided there is any link to federal funding). 

Many of our rights are to be free from the government. So, of our rights are ensured by the federal government against others. But what about education?


Unfortunately, we do not have a right to an education -- at least not on the federal or national level. The word education does not appear in the Constitution, and any federal role in education is questionable. Some argue that is tied in with interstate commerce, and therefore a federal issue. But generally, our acceptance of a federal role in education has nothing to do with the Constitution. It has developed and grown over time, and we generally accept it -- even though some argue against it.

That leaves our right to an education as a state matter. In fact, the right to an education varies from state to state. The feds have addressed special education and both racial and sex discrimination in education, but other than that it is up to individual states. 

How much education do we have a right to? What quality of education? How much geographical equality? Equality of opportunity or equality of effort? How do we define effort or opportunity for these purposes? All of these are state matters. All of them. 

Our right to an education comes from state constitutions, state laws and state regulations, as implemented by state and local government and as interpreted by state courts. Not federal. 

Moreover, there is very very little regulation of traditional private schools. The federal government has ruled that we cannot be compelled to attend a public school if we would rather attend (and pay for) a private school. If private schools take any federal funding, some regulations apply (e.g., the sex discrimination stuff). Otherwise, private schools are regulated like any other business (either for-profit or non-profit). There is a bit more regulation of charter schools, but this might just a product of how much government funding they take. 

So, the government is not going to step in an assure your right to an education. No one is going to assure you that your private school is actually providing an education to its students. The federal governed tried to force states to step in with public schools to assure that they are providing a decent eduction, but is now pulling back. (Pulling back from an effort that did a piss poor job of defining or measuring an education, anyway.) 

While most (all?) states do promise a right to a free public education, the quality of those schools is far from assured. In fact, it appears that while we may have a right to an education, we do not have a right to decent education.