What is the purpose of a public school system?
Twenty-five years ago in its landmark Leandro ruling, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that the purpose was, at a minimum, to provide every child in this state with the opportunity to obtain a “sound basic education.”
This week the court will hear a new round of arguments (and presumably, attempt to fashion a permanent solution) in that same, seemingly never-ending case.
At issue: whether the state legislature can be compelled to fund a comprehensive plan prepared by court-appointed experts that would make such a sound basic education, at long last, truly available to all students.
Republican legislative leaders contend that it is beyond the judiciary’s constitutional authority to order to order the General Assembly to fund such a plan. Ultimately, they argue, the power of the purse resides with the legislative majority alone.
Plaintiffs and their supporters counter persuasively, however, that the court must answer the question in the affirmative — if the original 1997 decision and the constitutional right it confirmed are to have any practical meaning. Without such a ruling, they point out, decades of litigation will have effectively been for naught and the supposed constitutional right to a sound basic education will be shown to have been illusory.
Interestingly and importantly, however, even if the court does follow the courageous path urged by plaintiffs and moves to enforce its original ruling a quarter century after it was issued (and rest assured, the howls emanating from the political right in the event of such a decision will be eardrum shattering), there will still be much more to do.
As Chief Justice Earl Warren eloquently explained 68 years ago in the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous Brown v. Board of Education ruling – the decision that ended legal racial segregation in American public schools – the purpose of public education in American society goes well beyond the mere provision of academic instruction by well-trained educators that prepares children to do well on tests, advance to higher grades and obtain good jobs.
Warren put it this way:
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.”
In other words, while it is a very important function, public schools should not be seen merely as distributors of useful information – box store-like institutions that families patronize or shun as they search of the best path to career advancement for their child at the lowest price.
Schools are also one of the key public institutions that binds together our vast and disparate nation. They are – or at least should be – a place where American children and adults of all backgrounds come together as equals to learn about one other. They are places to learn how to coexist (and maybe even thrive); a place where we come not just to consume, but also to participate and contribute as citizens.
As the good people at the American Federation of Teachers put it in describing their vision of “community schools”:
Community schools aren’t just centers of education…. They’re a place where teachers, families, community members and service providers can come together in coordinated, purposeful and results-focused partnerships. These schools become the center of their communities by providing the services to students, families and neighbors that best serve their needs, while at the same time promoting stable, healthy neighborhoods.”
Unfortunately, in this era when so many aspects of society have been commodified and marketized, the language of consumerism is hard to avoid – even for public education advocates working for progressive change.
And so it is that even an enormously important and potentially game-changing case like Leandro suffers somewhat for its reliance on rather stolid and inadequate language.
The bottom line: Providing all North Carolina schoolchildren with access to a sound basic education is a ‘must’ and it seems almost unfathomable that the Supreme Court would, after all these years, fail to seize the opportunity to enforce such a fundamental constitutional right.
But ultimately, our schools have a much broader and more important societal role to fill. And if things go well, the long-delayed enforcement of the Leandro guarantee will be just one of several steps on the path to such an outcome in North Carolina.