Repeating a line from President George W. Bush in 2002 and President Barack Obama in 2011, President Donald Trump told Congress and the nation last night that education is “the civil rights issue of our time.” He used this line to justify his DeVosian plan (a scheme that looks a lot like South Dakota’s stealth vouchers) for public money for private schools:
I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children…. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them [Pres. Donald Trump, address to Congress, as transcribed by NPR, 2017.02.28].
Recent research shows voucher programs correlating with “huge declines of academic achievement… in three states.”
But beyond practical impacts, let’s look at the moral and political framework Trump trumpeted last night.
Education is a civil right. The Constitution and its Amendments don’t mention education. But in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court said education undergirds every word and application of the Constitution:
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms [Chief Justice Earl Warren, Opinion, Brown v. Board of Education, 1954.05.17].
South Dakota’s constitution explicitly affirms that education is a civil right explicitly:
The stability of a republican form of government depending on the morality and intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature to establish and maintain a general and uniform system of public schools wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all; and to adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education [SD Const., Article 8, Section 1, 1889].
Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump were correct that education is a civil right. However, President Trump is incorrect in his policy conclusion about protecting that civil right.
When we recognize certain civil rights—voting, free speech, worship, privacy—we don’t write citizens a check from the public treasury and tell them to go hire a lawyer or security guards or buy a gun to protect those rights. We create robust public institutions—the courts, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—to enforce those rights.
To enforce the fundamental civil right to education, we don’t hand parents money and tell them, “Good luck finding a school!” We use our common wealth to build a robust public school system that can deliver the free, “thorough and efficient” that South Dakota’s constitution mandates to all students.
Civil rights aren’t a matter of choice, and they aren’t costs that we shift to the private sector. Civil rights our our common cause, achieved through common effort through government—in this case, through the public school system.