Can the Ohio Constitution save public education?
“Two hundred years ago our Founding Fathers gave us two gifts. Both were relatively unknown in the world. The first was democracy. The second was public education. These gifts were inextricably intertwined.” So begins Derek Black’s book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, the focus of a March 10 discussion sponsored by the Heights Coalition for Public Education. More than 75 participants joined the first session of a three-part conversation.
Black, a constitutional-law scholar at the University of South Carolina, public school advocate, and unapologetic defender of democracy, kicked off the evening. He explained that he set out to write about testing and privatization, but soon realized he needed to take a step back and look at the relevance of education in our history and in our democracy. He likened undermining public education to attacking voting rights. As Black put it, this “is not about policies, it is about our values.”
Are we ready to sacrifice something so basic to who we are as a nation? Public schools are not without faults, but marginalizing them is dangerous. It amounts to an attack on democracy itself.
It’s the bigger picture that made reading the book so important to Toni Thayer, one of the event planners, who noted, “We are caught up in the vacuum of the present. It is so useful to understand the deeper story.” Greater awareness of the 200-year history of public education as a constitutional mandate gave other participants, and me, a sense of urgency.
I looked for education in the original Ohio Constitution of 1803, and found it in Article VIII, Section 3: “ . . . religion, morality and knowledge being essentially necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of instruction shall forever be encouraged by legislative provision . . . ” Section 25 of the same article went even further, stating, "no law shall be passed to prevent the poor . . . within this State, from an equal participation in the schools . . . ” Responsibility for funding a high-quality education is captured in the 1851 update and remains in Article VI: “The General Assembly shall make such provisions, by taxation, or otherwise . . . and will secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the State.”
The Constitution is hardly a page-turner, and yet the sparse and simple words are important to fairness, equal citizenship and a functioning democracy. The Constitution is an essential statement of our values, and it is these values that are at risk.
While the Constitution has hardly changed over 200 years, the legislature’s commitment to upholding its intention has. Black asserts that, until the last decade, public education was a nonpartisan issue. It was not controversial. Sadly, the supermajority in the Ohio Legislature has repeatedly failed to prioritize the public system. Instead of delivering adequate resources for education, it has created and funded a dual system that operates under different rules, one accountable and one not—one where resources grow and the other where they shrink.
In our district, we feel the sting of this retreat from the public system. There is a lot at stake, and Black’s book is a warning: We can no longer take lawmakers’ commitment to public education for granted.
This spring, Ohio lawmakers can make our public school system the state’s top priority. If they adopt the Fair School Funding Plan and increase the state investment in that plan, they can demonstrate fealty to the Constitution and to democracy.
It will save the CH-UH schools and districts across the state from the devastation imposed by years of putting vouchers and charter schools ahead of public education.
Susie Kaeser has been a proud Cleveland Heights resident siince 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters.