Arne Duncan: It’s Time to Make a Quality Public Education a Civil Right for All Children

Arne Duncan visits a third grade classroom at McGlone Elementary School in Denver, May 14, 2015. (Getty Images)

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A generation ago, leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall advocated for quality education as a civil right for all children. A decade ago, President Barack Obama declared education “the civil rights issue of our time.” And yet, the tragic reality today for millions of children is that quality education is far from a civil right.

Scan the constitutions of most states, and you won’t find any clause guaranteeing every child the right to a quality public education. They promise a free public education, but not a great one. 

It is no wonder states across the nation have failed to deliver a quality public education for so many students, particularly children of color and those who are economically disadvantaged. Even before the pandemic, just 35 percent of American fourth graders were reading at grade level, along with only 22 percent of Latino and 15 percent of African-American eighth graders, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

These outcomes are not inevitable. They are the result, in many cases, of policies formulated by a system that was never designed and is not incentivized to put the needs of all students first. Convinced that a quality public education — not just a free one — should be a civil right for all American children, President Obama and I advocated for parent empowerment and a student-centered agenda with better educational opportunities for millions of young people across the nation.

But so much more work must be done to meet this moment for the children and parents of America. At the state level, countless policies perpetuate educational injustice. In most states, these have so far been nearly impossible to change because kids can’t vote, parents don’t have lobbyists and the right to a quality public education is not enshrined in the constitution.

A growing movement of parents, educators and community leaders across multiple states have begun to advocate for change in their state constitutions. Last year, bills were introduced in the New Mexico, Nevada and Minnesota legislatures to enshrine a right to a quality education in their constitutions. These movements have continued to accelerate recently in Minnesota  and California to establish a long-overdue seat at the table for public school parents to advocate for the interests of all students. 

The Page Amendment campaign in Minnesota is leading this national movement. It is driven by a broad coalition that includes youth, parents, education and community leaders, businesses, sovereign tribal nations and, notably, Neel Kashkari, president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, and Alan Page, former Minnesota Supreme Court justice and iconic former Minnesota Viking. Their initiative would amend the state’s constitution to add: “All children have a fundamental right to a quality public education that fully prepares them with the skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society.”      

The campaign has built a broad bipartisan legislative coalition, with the goal of a historic education civil rights public referendum this November.  

Throughout two decades of working to improve American public education, as superintendent of Chicago Public Schools then as Obama’s education secretary, I have learned that it takes bold action to transform struggling schools and entrenched bureaucracies. When politicians and special interests defend the status quo, it takes parent power to compel the public school system to meet the needs of students. 

Establishing a constitutional right to a quality public education would empower parents with the right to challenge policies that harm students and double down on longstanding injustices. Such a tool would be particularly valuable for communities of color, where the education bureaucracy has failed generations of children and ignored generations of parents. 

In the wake of pandemic-related school closures that denied in-person learning to millions of children for up to 18 months, parents in Virginia, San Francisco and elsewhere have voted against Democrats who were perceived to embrace the status quo at the expense of children. Especially in this unique moment, relegating parents to the sidelines and telling them to leave the education of their children to the so-called experts has proven to be a losing political strategy.

Politicians have talked about education as a civil right for generations, but too often only as a metaphor. Empowering parents to advocate for the interests of all students would make public education more public. It would reorient education policymaking around the student learning because all children deserve the opportunity to reach their full potential regardless of race, ethnicity, disability, geography or socioeconomic status. 

This is our moment. Now is the time for Minnesota to chart a path forward for the nation by translating “kids first” from a soundbite into a civil right for all public school students. 

 Arne Duncan is managing partner at the Emerson Collective, a former secretary of education and Chicago superintendent of schools, and author of “How Schools Work.”

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