Yes, Students Have a Constitutional Right to an Education
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Yes, Students Have a Constitutional Right to an Education

My response for the bi-weekly Think The Vote challenge organized by the Bill Of Rights Institute. The question, “Do Students Have the Constitutional Right to an Education?,” seemed harder to answer from the ‘yes’ standpoint, so that’s what I tried. You can read other students’ responses on both sides of the debate here. 

“A primary object […] should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing […] than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?” 

 – George Washington 


“Say […] whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the government, or information to the people. This last is the most certain and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them.” 

– Thomas Jefferson 


“A well instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.” 

– James Madison 


Today, the words of the founding fathers on the importance of educating Americans ring true as much as they did two-hundred-fifty years ago, when our nation was in its infancy and its merit untested. And yet, the practical applications of interpreting this value from our constitution is a source of contention among the diverse opinions of the current political spectrum. 

Despite the controversy, it is clear that the right to an education, or the right to pursue an education, is derived from the constitution through an in-depth analysis of the founding document’s literal content and moral purpose. 

Before I outline my case, allow me to define what constitutional rights mean. 

Rights are legal, social, or moral norms that entitle a group of people to certain actions or experiences; in the context of the U.S. Constitution, rights are protections of entitlement that are enumerated or implied by the document and cannot be obstructed without due process of the law. 

These rights include inalienable/natural rights; legal rights as those enforced distinctly by the law (such as the sixth amendment); civil rights (thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments); political rights that ensure fair treatment under the law (I.e, due process, the right to vote, the right to a fair trial); and implied rights.

Out of these subsets, the most important for the purpose of my argument are the concepts of inalienable and implied rights, the latter being entitlements that are not explicitly stated in the constitution. 

An example of implied rights is the right to privacy: while the constitution makes no specific mention of privacy, modern interpreters of the living document note that the first, third, fourth, fifth, ninth, and fourteenth amendments allude to it, and can therefore be derived from the explicit text.

Furthermore, the validity of implied rights has been well-cemented in our current interpretation of the constitution. The most notable affirmation was the landmark 7-2 SCOTUS ruling in Roe v. Wade, which determined that states cannot infringe upon the individual right to privacy with regards to first trimester abortions. 

The reason why I mention this specific instance is to illustrate that constitutional rights INCLUDE THOSE WHICH ARE NOT EXPLICITLY STATED IN THE DOCUMENT. As evidenced by their upholding in the highest court in the land, implied rights are just as legitimate as those which are explicitly stated.

Now, with this matter settled, we are but one step away from seeing how education is a right afforded by the constitution. 

First, we must recognize that inalienable or natural rights, as encapsulated by the Jeffersonian (Lockean) phrase ‘‘life, liberty, and property,’’ are explicit rights, as mentioned specifically in the fourteenth amendment: 

“Nor shall any state deprive any person of LIFE, LIBERTY, OR PROPERTY, without due process of law.”

Here, it is clear that education is an implied right because it falls underneath the umbrella of the rights of “life and liberty.’’

To prove this, allow me to produce a definition of education. According to pedagogist Mark K. Smith, education is the “wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning undertaken in the belief that all should have the chance to share in life.” 

Dissecting this definition, we see that it accurately eclipses our shared American values and therefore constitutes an important facet of American life and liberty. 

Firstly, the philosophical adjectives used to describe the process of learning (“wise, hopeful, and respectful”) embody the very message of educational opportunity and quality in which our founding fathers believed, as reflected in the opening quotations. 

For instance, ‘wisdom’ conveys a sense of empathy for different ideas: a cornerstone value that comprises our national love for debate and inquiry. 

‘Hope,’ meanwhile, is a word that signifies fearless exploration of the uncharted, the very spirit of the first colonists who came to this land and the continued guiding force for our country’s students, who aim to cure pressing scientific and social issues in the twenty-first century. 

Lastly, ‘respect’ implies treating others both equally and as individuals: a uniquely American tightrope act that extends to both three hundred years of turbulent history and the way we seek to educate students in our classrooms.

In short, education is, as American philosopher John Dewey put it: “not preparation for life,” but rather “life itself.” It is not the same thing as schooling; rather, it is an experience that transcends the four walls and rows of desks to be about cultivating individual potential. 

By interacting with knowledge and other people in a formal or informal education setting, students learn the importances of reason, risk-taking and collaboration—qualities that are inextricable to the rudimentary values of the United States, and are therefore inextricable to living a free life in America.  

Ultimately, education is the foundation for life and liberty (although we could indeed argue that it is also so for property) and is therefore protected as an implied right from the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution. As our neighborhoods, communities, and people rely on it to maintain the ethical and practical functions of our country as embodied by ‘life, liberty, and property,’ education is wholly necessary to the perpetuation of the American identity, 

In closing, I would like to clarify my claim by addressing two counter arguments. 

With regards to my assertion that natural rights are explicitly protected by the constitution, I can imagine an objection to be a copy or some variant of : “Oh, so you’re saying that the government can force teachers to teach?” 

I am not—I am only emphasizing that life, liberty, and property are protected from deliberate state discrimination. Although they are undeniably supported under the constitution and (indeed our Declaration of Independence), I concede that inalienable rights cannot be used as justification for infringing on others’ natural, political, or economic rights. In other words, I am saying that education is a constitutional right INSOFAR AS IT IS NOT USED TO DENY INDIVIDUALS’ THEIR OWN RIGHTS.

On the subject of the U.S. government’s role in education, I must establish my silence. Both critics and supporters of public education have valid points, but I am not here to argue how or if the government should be involved in education based on empirical evidence. Rather, I am here to argue what IS protected under the constitution; any other reference to purported government over or underreach is irrelevant to the question: Do students have a constitutional right to an education?

My answer, as demonstrated from a close examination of natural and implied rights, the fourteenth amendment, and the meaning of education, is an irrevocable ‘yes.’


    • Founding Fathers Quotes and 14th Amendment: 
      • The Constitution of the United States with Index, and The Declaration of Independence. Second Edition, 2014 Printing. National Center for Constitutional Studies.