Access To Education
Public education in the United States has been subjected to vigorous criticism. Some criticize it in the hopes of improving it, and some criticize it in order to undermine it. If one accepts the principle that every citizen of our society has the right to access education, then we can debate how best to implement this principle as policy. But without agreement on the principle, we risk having a very different discussion: a discussion not of how to ensure that this right is implemented, but whether it should be implemented.
Consider that in the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, the activity you are now engaging in -- reading -- is inaccessible to a substantial portion of the population. In 1993, the National Adult Literacy Study, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, found that more than 40 million adults in the U.S. are functionally illiterate.
There may be places where knowing how to read is not essential to exercising the rights and responsibilities of a citizen. But the United States is not one of them. Here not being able to read means that one's opportunities for employment, and therefore income, are very limited. Not being able to read means not being able to read a newspaper, and therefore being denied access to the kinds of news that rarely appear on television. Not being able to read means not being able to read the warnings on a medicine bottle. Not being able to read severely constrains one's ability to vote one's interests in any kind of election.
When one considers the current crop of buffoons running things, the right to informed participation in elections doesn't always seem so wonderful. But imagine what these people would be doing if they never had to stand for an election. The right to participate is somewhat vitiated by the current campaign finance system and other things that could be changed. And not all elections are for public office.
Suppose you decide to form a union at your workplace. If some of your co-workers can't read, that's going to limit your ability to communicate with them, particularly if they are numerous or spread out geographically. There may be an election to decide whether to be represented by a union, workers may have to choose which union to affiliate with, and then they will have to choose officers. These choices require information. To be limited to what can be spoken is a severe constraint.
If access to education is a fundamental human right, then access to it should not be in any way contingent. In particular, access should not be contingent on wealth or income.
Few would argue that owning a Lear jet is a human right. My rights are not denied by virtue of the fact that I don't have one. But now suppose we consider something that we all agree is a basic human right, like the right not to be murdered. Suppose that we take away the right not to be murdered, and replace it with a market mechanism. From now on, you won't be murdered if you pay $20 an hour to a bodyguard that will prevent you from being murdered. How many people would go for this?
But this is exactly what some people want to do to public education: replace it with a private system, so that access will be constrained by a market mechanism. You get what you pay for. That's a fine principle for the personal jet market. It's not a fine principle for determining access to a right.
The principle of the right to access education is in many ways poorly implemented at present. Rich school districts have more money than poor ones, and there are other problems of access. But these are issues of how to implement the right, issues that should be addressed. They don't raise questions of whether there should be public education -- on the contrary, they suggest that public education isn't public enough.
There's nothing wrong with using choice to try to improve our school system, so long as we don't confuse choice with a market mechanism. A public school system can allow a choice of which public school to attend. A voucher system or a tax credit system only increases the choices of people with more resources to start with. This would move us further away from implementing the right to education, and use public dollars to do so.
Robert Naiman <email@example.com>
1737 21st NW Washington, DC 20009
phone: 202-265-3263 x277