Written in 1894, the education provision in the New York Constitution is badly outdated.  That was the same year the state passed a law that allowed communities to set up separate schools for African-Americans; it was widely believed that women shouldn’t have the right to vote; and an eighth grade education was legitimately considered more than sufficient preparation for a job.

After World War II, jobs gradually became more academically demanding, requiring a more educated work force.  But it wasn’t until the 1982 court decision in Board of Education, Levittown Union Free School District v Nyquist that the state’s responsibility was established for providing a sound basic education for every student. Twenty-one years later, the Court of Appeals finally decided what “sound basic” means.  The 2003 New York Court of Appeals decision Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State of New York defined this as the “opportunity for a meaningful high school education, one which prepares them to function productively as civic participants.”  In school districts unable to raise sufficient funds through tax revenue, the State must therefore intervene and provide additional funding to meet this minimum standard.   In addition, this decision only covered schools in New York City, not the rest of the state.

Following CFE, in 2007, the state legislature enacted reforms to the state aid system that promised students, not only in New York City, but throughout the state, billions of dollars in increased funding and a more equitable distribution of state aid. Since the recession of 2008, however, the state has not lived up to these commitments. There is a current case being litigated, NYSER v. State of New York, which is the follow up of the CFE decision to cover the entire state.

However, even if NYSER succeeds, it is only focused on students up to high school, not postsecondary.  In addition, no New York court has ever suggested a “sound basic education” includes postsecondary education, and even a better funded K-12 system with much better outcomes is insufficient for the modern workforce.  For instance, a high school degree was acceptable for 72% of jobs in 1973, but only 36% of jobs in 2020 (see graph).

The lack of citizens with a postsecondary education is a problem today.  According to a recent survey, sixty percent of employers report that candidates applying for jobs lack the necessary skills to fill available positions.

There is every reason to expect this nearly 50-year trend to continue.  The fastest growing occupations -require postsecondary education (see graph).

“STEM” stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics jobs.  “Community Services” covers occupations that range from clergy to social workers to rehabilitation and mental health counselors.

A recent article from NPR put this problem in a wider perspective:

The United States currently has the ninth-most-educated workforce in the world, with 45 percent of young adults having earned some form of diploma or certificate. That’s according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which compiles detailed statistics on developed countries. The U.S. is above the OECD average, making modest progress over the past decade, even as tuition has risen steadily.

“The most educated workforces in the world,” though, are smoking us. They are found in South Korea, where a whopping 67 percent of adults have some postsecondary education, and Japan and Canada (both at 58 percent).

The same article quotes Andreas Schleicher, a top education analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, on public spending for college:

“Many European countries provide free public higher education and in virtually all of these countries taxpayers benefit from this (in the sense that the additional tax revenues paid by better educated workers far outweigh the public expenditure on higher education).”

The right to a free college education was a major issue in the 2016 presidential election.  According to the BBC, “Bernie Sanders has set the bar when it comes to higher education policy in the modern Democratic Party, with his call for free college for all Americans funded by taxing Wall Street financial transactions. He points to the runaway costs of higher education as one of the driving forces behind growing income inequality in the US.

Hillary Clinton supports a plan to make two-year community college free, but her higher education policies are more modest. She has called for lowering student loan interest rates, providing $17.5 billion to improve the quality of higher education and encouraging colleges to set affordable tuition rates that don’t require student loans.”

Clinton adapted much of Sanders’ position when she won the nomination.  The Democratic Platform for the 2016 election states, “Democrats are unified in their strong belief that every student should be able to go to college debt-free, and working families should not have to pay any tuition to go to public colleges and universities. We will also make community college free, while ensuring the strength of our Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions.”

New York State is far behind this more serious consideration of postsecondary education.  It’s no surprise that an education amendment from 1894 doesn’t include the right to higher education.  However, we no longer live in those times.  A modern and forward-thinking state constitution must address this state’s responsibility directly and give its citizens the right to an affordable, and if necessary, free, postsecondary education.