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The Constitution and Public School Policy

One of the arguments for abolishing the federal Department of Education is that the word education doesn’t appear in the Constitution. For that reason, it's unconstitutional for the federal government to influence school policy at the state level.

This is a toothless argument because federal government has been influencing school policy since before the Constitution was ratified in 1788. In 1785, the Continental Congress stipulated that as a new territory became a state, a portion of each township would be set aside for a local school. Thus began the policy that states would provide a system of public education for its citizens.

The Founders—men like James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton—were products of a system of education that varied according to one’s domestic circumstances. Horace Mann (1796-1859) and others started calling for free compulsory education for every child in the early nineteenth century, but it would be another hundred years or so before such a system was established.

Under the system in place in the eighteenth century, a few communities, particularly in the New England colonies, had local schools, but generally, children of literate parents learned to read and cipher at home. Wealthy parents hired tutors or sent their sons to board with a learned man, usually a minister. Founders Madison, Adams, and Jefferson had educations of this kind.

Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, had to manage without tutors. His mother taught him to read and write, but most of his learning up to the age of fifteen was acquired from the family’s personal library of thirty-four books.

Many decades would pass before the K-12 public school system familiar to us came into existence. During the transition, the old ways continued. The education children received depended upon the wealth and educational level of their parents and where they lived. Children of the poor mostly went without.

As for the Founders’ views on public education, they had a very different concept from ours. For example, Jefferson proposed a two-track system of education, one for “scholars,” and one for the “laboring classes.” The idea of presenting the same curriculum to all children, regardless of gender or economic class would have sent him into a laughing fit.

Although the states were responsible for funding their public schools, federal money found its way into the states as early as the 1840s, when the government made surplus federal funds available for public education.

In the 1860s, the federal Office of Education began collecting data intended to help states establish more effective school systems.

In the 1940s, the federal government prompted schools to add nonacademic courses like home economics to the curriculum by funding them.

Since 1965, when President Johnson sighed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the federal government has influenced school policy in a multitude of ways.

Since its formation in 1979, the Department of Education has become bloated and overreaching, but that’s the fault of legislation originating in Congress.

Returning the functions of the DOE to the Department of Health and Human Services would bring about much needed reorganization and downsizing, but it would not end federal influence on state public school policy.

States can never be free to do exactly what they want with their local public schools because the Constitution guarantees the rights of all citizens to all the privileges of citizenship. States cannot adopt school policies that would infringe on these rights in the public schools—unless they convert a portion of them to privately managed charter schools.

It’s ironic that the current turbulence in public education is taking us back to the beginnings of the Republic: In the United States in 2017, the education children receive depends to a large extent upon the wealth and educational level of their parents and where they live.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Maeve Maddox. All rights reserved.
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