The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There is no constitutional right to a high-quality public education. Should there be?

U.S. Constitution (National Archives)

In 2004, Congress declared Sept. 17 as Constitution Day, a federal holiday that requires all schools that receive federal funding to offer some type of “educational program” on the Constitution, though it doesn’t define what that should be (and it doesn’t have consequences for those that don’t). The effort to establish the day was led by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who died in 2010.

Why is the holiday on Sept. 17? It was the last session of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, during which the final version of the newly written Constitution was signed by 39 delegates.

Since then, schools at every level have taken different approaches to teaching the Constitution on this day — or a day close to Sept. 17 if the holiday falls on a weekend, as it does this year. Some hold constitutional fairs, others offer formal lessons. There are numerous online lessons available for teachers and students, including some by the National Archives, which suggest ways to teach six big ideas about the Constitution.

Though schools are charged with teaching the Constitution on this holiday (and presumably, on other days as well), public education is not mentioned in the document, with that responsibility left to the states. There is no federal right to a high-quality public education.

Should there be? This post is an argument in favor. It was written by Noliwe Rooks, director of American studies at Cornell University, and who was for 10 years the associate director of African American studies at Princeton University. She is the author of three books, including “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education,” out this month.

It’s Constitution Day: A quiz to see how much you know

By Noliwe Rooks

The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.)  is the reason we now observe September 17th as Constitution Day, a federally recognized holiday. Some might say the senator was a fitting champion; he rarely left home without a copy of our nation’s founding document tucked into his jacket pocket.

At his funeral in 2010, many noted that with 51 years in office, Byrd was the longest serving member of the Senate. They would have also known that while running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952, he was called upon to renounce his role as a chapter founder, recruiter, and elected leader — an “exalted cyclops” to be exact — in the Ku Klux Klan.

Of his membership in the white supremacist group, Byrd said he had been young and ambitious, and that the Klan provided access to political power and electoral support. At that point in our nation’s history, and in that region of the country, Klan membership would fling wide open doors of opportunity potentially closed to a young man like Byrd who came from an impoverished, rural background.

Economic mobility, white supremacy and the power to define an American identity were as deeply meshed in the senator’s story as they are in the holiday itself.

On Constitution Day, all K-12 schools, as well as colleges and universities receiving federal funds (and all federal agencies) are supposed to host programs devoted to the study and appreciation of the United States Constitution, according to a 2004 law that Byrd championed.

In light of the neglected state of public schools in countless districts throughout the United States, it’s high time that the relationship between education and the Constitution abides more than just an assembly or a 30-minute video in third-period social studies class.

We the people should be guaranteed the right to a high-quality education by the U.S. Constitution, which doesn’t mention public education.

The push for a federally supported celebration of the Constitution was first championed in 1917 during World War I by the Sons of the American Revolution. The committee advocating for the new holiday included President Calvin Coolidge, business tycoon John D. Rockefeller, and Army General John Pershing. They proposed its enactment just as Congress was set to ratify the 1917 Immigration Act barring immigration from China and other Asian countries due to a widespread belief among the political and business elite that Asians were sneaky, violent, and more likely to be criminals than were whites.

Celebrating the American Constitution went hand in hand with a sharp, public rise in ethnic stereotyping and xenophobia. Affirming and protecting an American identity meant denigrating others.

In 1939, during World War II, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst began prevailing upon his congressional contacts and writing columns in his newspapers to call for the creation of a holiday to celebrate American citizenship. He even made a short film released to wide acclaim titled, “I Am An American.” In 1940, Congress acquiesced, designating the third Sunday in May as “I Am An American Day.”

Most who read Hearst’s columns knew that he often wrote about people from Asia — the “yellow peril” as he called them pejoratively — who were conspiring to bring about the global demise of the “white race.” He was particularly brutal in his verbal attacks on Japanese people outside and within the United States. Some historians hold him at least partially responsible for the internment of Japanese-Americans in internment camps, since he consistently advocated such measures in person and in print. “I Am An American Day” was as much about carving out who was not American as it was about celebrating who was.

In February 1952, Congress moved “I am an American Day” to September 17, the date the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1787, and renamed it “Citizenship Day.” President Truman announced the change in a speech explaining that the country was now in a war against communism, and U.S. communists in particular. Before long, the persecution of innocents charged of being communist, along with a paranoia and forced conformity in American public life, sowed widespread fear among many Americans. There were acceptable and unacceptable American citizens, and the relabeling of this holiday came at a time when which type you were mattered greatly.

We can do better. This is a holiday that has always demanded, but has yet to receive, guidance and direction from the American people as to how best we can have — and celebrate — an inclusive expression of American citizenship and identity. What better place to start than by enshrining into the Constitution the right of all children in America, regardless of race, ethnicity or economic background to receive a quality education?

In 2005, Robert Moses, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, MacArthur Genius Award winner and founder of The Algebra Project, published a collection of essays called “Quality Education as a Constitutional Right: Creating a Grassroots Movement to Transform Public Education.” The movement never materialized.

According to Stephen Lurie’s 2013 article in the Atlantic, “Why Doesn’t the U.S. Constitution Guarantee the Right to Education,” accessible congressional records indicate that there have only been “two proposals — one by Rep. Major Owens (D-NY) and repeated efforts by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) — for an education amendment, ever.”

Lurie noted that Jackson regularly introduced an identical education amendment in every session of Congress from 1999 to 2012 “regarding the right of all citizens of the United States to a public education of equal high quality.” In each case, the resolution was referred to and killed in the House Judiciary Committee.

In 1945, more than 1 million people attended Citizenship Day celebrations in Central Park reaffirming the privileges and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship. Today, we could make an even bigger and more lasting impact by discussing and passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a quality education to our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.