01/24/2012 10:41 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Other People's Children

Last week, CNN reported on recent events in Garfield Heights, Ohio, where austerity measures have led local school officials to shorten the schoolday to five hours, get rid of subjects like art, music, and PE -- and send kids home before lunch.

What didn't come out during the piece was that these drastic decisions were fueled in part by the community's refusal, over a 20-year period, to pass a levy that would help support the schools. Like many places across the country, Garfield Heights' residents were getting older, its younger people were moving away, and those that remained didn't see sufficient value in a measure that would be used to support the education of other people's children.

In this way, the events in Garfield Heights are a poignant window into a larger issue about what we value, and don't value, in modern American society. And the reality is that despite our historic commitments to both liberty and equality, American education policy reflects our willingness to honor liberty at the expense of equality.

It wasn't that long ago that four U.S. Supreme Court justices believed the way we finance public education in this country was unconstitutional. Five of their colleagues disagreed, however, leading Justice Thurgood Marshall to speak forcefully in dissent. "The majority's holding," he wrote, "can only be seen as a retreat from our historic commitment to equality of educational opportunity and as unsupportable acquiescence in a system which deprives children in their earliest years of the chance to reach their full potential as citizens."

Marshall and his colleagues had been asked to rule on the funding policy of Texas, in which, like so many other places, the wealthier the community was, the more resources it had to provide for its schools. A group of poor parents brought suit, claiming that their state's policy of relying on property taxes to fund schools was an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Speaking for the narrow majority, Justice Potter Stewart disagreed, despite conceding that the Texas school system "can fairly be described as chaotic and unjust. . . . [But] it does not follow," Potter continued, "that this system violates the Constitution."

Marshall was incredulous. "The Court concludes that public education is not constitutionally guaranteed," he wrote, even though "no other state function is so uniformly recognized as an essential element of our society's well being."

Marshall's central point was simple: without equal access to a high-quality public education, democracy doesn't work. "Education directly affects the ability of a child to exercise his First Amendment rights," he explained. "Education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society. Both facets of this observation are suggestive of the substantial relationship which education bears to guarantees of our Constitution."

Indeed, public education is our surest form of "national security." It provides the most likely path out of poverty, helps prepare young people to be successful workers and citizens, and reminds us all of who, on our best days, we aspire to be. And yet the reality is we continue to tolerate a system in which your zip code determines your access to the American Dream, and in which communities refuse to fund their schools because "their" children no longer go there.

We can do better. But first we need to correct the error the Court made in 1973. We need to admit that the way we fund public education in this country is unconstitutional, and we need to craft a new system that funds schools equitably.