Many states have constitutional provisions establishing the state’s obligation to educate youth. Molly Hunter of the Education Law Center discusses these provisions in State Constitution Education Clause Language. The following are some examples:
From Article VIII of the Connecticut Constitution:
There shall always be free public elementary and secondary schools in the state. The general assembly shall implement this principle by appropriate legislation.
The fund, called the SCHOOL FUND, shall remain a perpetual fund, the interest of which shall be inviolably appropriated to the support and encouragement of the public schools throughout the state, and for the equal benefit of all the people thereof. The value and amount of said fund shall be ascertained in such manner as the general assembly may prescribe, published, and recorded in the comptroller’s office; and no law shall ever be made, authorizing such fund to be diverted to any other use than the encouragement and support of public schools, among the several school societies, as justice and equity shall require.
Although the language in this amendment is rather pale, a recent court case is forcing the state to completely reinvent its school system. From the New York Times:
The current system “has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder,” Judge Moukawsher said, betraying a promise in the State Constitution to give children a “fair opportunity for an elementary and secondary school education.”
Connecticut finances its schools with a combination of local property taxes and federal and state money in a way that is supposed to offset the huge disparities in property values between rich and poor towns. Bridgeport, court documents noted, has nearly eight times the population of nearby New Canaan, but property in that wealthy Fairfield County town is worth more than $1 billion more.
The state has faced a punishing fiscal crisis this year, resulting in layoffs and spending cutbacks. That led the General Assembly to cut state education aid to some of the poorest districts, with more than $905,000 cut from Bridgeport, and more than $600,000 cut from New Haven. Comparatively wealthy districts got more money: Branford, a New Haven suburb, got a funding increase of $300,000.
“An approach that allows rich towns to raid money desperately needed by poor towns makes a mockery of the state’s constitutional duty to provide adequate educational opportunities to all students,” Judge Moukawsher wrote.
“The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.”
This amendment has been interpreted liberally by the State Court to examine educational outcomes as proof of equality of educational opportunity. In Abbott v. Burke II, the Court concluded that “[w]hat a thorough and efficient education consists of is a continually changing concept,” 575 A.2d 359 (1990), and that “embedded in the constitutional provision itself, at least in its construction thus far by this Court, are various objectives and permissible outcomes-equality, uniformity, diversity, and disparity.”Id. at 367. The court also held that the requirement set forth in Robinson, that children must be provided with the educational opportunity necessary for contemporary citizenship and employment, means “poorer disadvantaged students must be given a chance to compete with relatively advantaged students.” Id. at 372.For instance, the court noted that “the right to a thorough and efficient education does not ensure that every student will succeed. It must, however, ensure that every child in New Jersey has the opportunity to achieve.” Id. at 443. The court further commented: “Our Constitution requires that public school children be given the opportunity to receive a thorough and efficient education. That constitutional vision irrefutably presumes that every child is potentially capable of attaining his or her own place as a contributing member in society with the ability to compete effectively with other citizens and to succeed in the economy. The wisdom giving rise to that vision is that both the child and society benefit immeasurably when that potential is realized.” Abbott IV, 693 A.2d 417 (1997) http://www.educationjustice.org/states/newjersey.html
Perhaps the most encompassing constitutional language, and maybe the best model, comes from Montana:
Section 1. Educational goals and duties. (1) It is the goal of the people to establish a system of education which will develop the full educational potential of each person. Equality of educational opportunity is guaranteed to each person of the state.
This language was adopted in 1973. Because of the guarantee of the equality of educational opportunity, in a 1988 court case, District Court Judge Henry Loble declared the state’s educational funding unconstitutional because of disparities and inequities among school districts with regard to tax burdens, educational expenditures, and educational opportunities. The Court stated that “fiscal difficulties in no way justify perpetuating inequities.” http://scholarship.law.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2270&context=mlr
Florida has very strong educational provisions in its constitution, although it defines users of the system as “children”:
(a) The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education and for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require. To assure that children attending public schools obtain a high quality education, the legislature shall make adequate provision to ensure that, by the beginning of the 2010 school year, there are a sufficient number of classrooms so that:
(1) The maximum number of students who are assigned to each teacher who is teaching in public school classrooms for prekindergarten through grade 3 does not exceed 18 students;
(2) The maximum number of students who are assigned to each teacher who is teaching in public school classrooms for grades 4 through 8 does not exceed 22 students; and
(3) The maximum number of students who are assigned to each teacher who is teaching in public school classrooms for grades 9 through 12 does not exceed 25 students.
The class size requirements of this subsection do not apply to extracurricular classes. Payment of the costs associated with reducing class size to meet these requirements is the responsibility of the state and not of local schools districts. Beginning with the 2003-2004 fiscal year, the legislature shall provide sufficient funds to reduce the average number of students in each classroom by at least two students per year until the maximum number of students per classroom does not exceed the requirements of this subsection.
(b) Every four-year old child in Florida shall be provided by the State a high quality pre-kindergarten learning opportunity in the form of an early childhood development and education program which shall be voluntary, high quality, free, and delivered according to professionally accepted standards. An early childhood development and education program means an organized program designed to address and enhance each child’s ability to make age appropriate progress in an appropriate range of settings in the development of language and cognitive capabilities and emotional, social, regulatory and moral capacities through education in basic skills and such other skills as the Legislature may determine to be appropriate.
(c) The early childhood education and development programs provided by reason of subparagraph (b) shall be implemented no later than the beginning of the 2005 school year through funds generated in addition to those used for existing education, health, and development programs. Existing education, health, and development programs are those funded by the State as of January 1, 2002 that provided for child or adult education, health care, or development.
The Illinois state constitution is high-minded but includes strong limits:
SECTION 1. GOAL – FREE SCHOOLS
A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.
The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law.
The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.