THE BLOG

Can You Define a "Basic" Education?

04/09/2015 04:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2015

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Last week I joined eleven of my fellow citizens to decide the fate of a young man who didn't help his cause by smirking through his trial.

We jurors took our jobs seriously, and -- as is built into the design of the jury system -- we each brought our own perspective. I and a few of my fellow jurors assumed a not-guilty verdict because the prosecutor did an inadequate job of laying out the facts; others assumed a guilty verdict because the defense attorney did a lousy job explaining why his client was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

By the middle of the first day of deliberations, I was pretty sure we never would never agree. But after a few Twelve-Angry-Men-and-Women moments on the second day, we were able to work ourselves into unanimity.

To me the whole experience was a vivid reminder of one of the core purposes of schools, which is sometimes forgotten in all the talk about how important it is to prepare students for college and career training.

That is to say, schools are an integral part of preparing students to take on the responsibilities of citizenship.

After all, once you are 18 -- that is, around the age of high school graduation -- you are eligible both to vote and to serve on a jury. Voting is a voluntary activity; serving on a jury is an obligation -- and the judge's not-so-veiled threats of contempt-of-court citations with accompanying jail time made that clear to me and my fellow jurors.

But it was evident that quite a few people in that jury room were fuzzy on the defendant's right to be presumed innocent, what constitutes "reasonable doubt," and the responsibility of a jury to reach unanimity. "This is a democracy, right?" one of my fellow jurors asked in surprise at the last concept. "Majority rules." One jury member was stunned that there was no expert to guide the discussion. That twelve lay people were expected to manage the deliberations all on our own was apparently unimaginable. There was also a powerful notion in the room that disagreement was subject to "negotiation," akin to a business deal. "Like with any compromise, none of us should go home happy," said one juror, despite the clear instructions from the judge that each of us needed to be satisfied within our own conscience with the verdict and not simply agree in order to get back to our lives.

The experience reminded me of a seminal New York Court of Appeals ruling in 2006 which, in order to establish how much money the state owed New York City schoolsi, puzzled through what was meant by the state's constitutional guarantee of a "sound basic education." The court finally settled on the idea that New York's public schools must "enable children to eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury."

The first time I heard about the ruling I thought the jury standard a bit simple-minded, but the more I thought about it the more profound it seemed -- after all, serving on a jury requires being able to read and understand evidence, from scientific to legal. Jury members have to apply logic and sense to what is sometimes a confusing mess of witnesses and documents. And jury members need to understand how they fit into the larger justice system. All of which means that jury members should have a broad knowledge not only of basic science, probability, and how things work, but also some history of how we have developed the systems we have and a respect for the basic obligations that citizens have to each other.

Of course high school graduates should be ready for postsecondary education or training, but that is only part of being ready for citizenship.

By reducing citizenship to its simplest obligations of voting and sitting on a jury, the New York Court of Appeals highlighted an important part of the point of schools in the oldest democratic nation in the world.


iThe court found, in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, that the state owed New York City an additional $1.96 billion for its schools. Although there were some tentative attempts to make good on that debt, New York state's schools continue to be among the most inequitably funded in the country, only being beaten out for the top spot by Illinois. For more on that, see Ed Trust's brand-new report, Funding Gaps 2015.