Is everyone entitled to an education?

Lately I’ve been vocal about the poor financial leadership, and poor leadership in general, of the Huntsville City School System.  From their inept handling of the special needs children to the selection of a new leader while paying off the old, Huntsville City Schools has been a rich target of ridicule and disdain.  Add to the mix the recent escapades at Grissom concerning the senior prank and the head football coach along with the system losing two children in two days on the reduced and doubled up bus routes, and the system really does seem to be falling apart.  To the tune of $19 million.

Missing in the mix is an examination of what it means to have an education.  Who needs to be educated and why.  I don’t expect to alter anyone’s view with this post, nor do I expect any earth shattering revelations.  Instead, this is more of a mental exercise in looking at the concept of the “Right to an Education.”

The concept of a right to education really took root in the 1960s.  While we in America had been providing some level of free, compulsary education for quite a few decades before, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on December 16, 1966.  A part of that Covenant was the decleration of education as an unalienable right of all people.  As such, every person on the planet is deserving of free and compulsaery primary and secondary education.

Nobel concept.

But what is an unalienable right? This is a right that exists because people exist, not because governments exist.  They are self-evident and universal.  Life.  Liberty.  Persuit of happiness. And, apparently to some, education.

I frankly have a problem with that.

Education can not exist without the structure of government or society. Education was not included in the Bill of Rights or even mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.  I have read quite a bit lately on the right to an education, and I’ve yet to hear a single convincing argument that it is an unalienable right.

The United States, that strange and marvolous experiment, had a problem.  A large country with a small population, we need workers who knew how to get things done.  We saw the value of education early on in our short history and, over time, came to recognize the dire need each of us has for an education.  It started as a church/village/parent responsibility but for many reasons, some valid and some not, it moved over to a state function.  Today, no one can imagine an America without a public school component.

Throughout the history of American education, certain types of people have been excluded from the process. At first, it was based on your religion. Catholics didn’t go to a prodestant school. Jews didn’t go to a baptist school.  Or based on your family.  My mom had enough educating my five siblings, she didn’t have time to educate your five siblings too.  Even after it moved to a state function, some groups of people were still left out. Various minorities (Blacks, Asians, and Natives quickly jump to mind, but also in various parts of the country, Irish, Germans and Jews) were denied a state education for various reasons.

It may take a while, but one thing our country is very good at is making sure the laws apply to everyone, and today (at least in theory) everyone in America can receive a free secondary education and most a free primary education.  But is that the best use of our recources? Are there “classes” of people who we shouldn’t educate?

Let me be perfectly clear.  In asking that question, I am not suggesting that there is any class of people which should never receive education. Instead, I am asking if there are people who shouldn’t receive the compulsary, free primary and secondary education provided by the state.

Because here is the truth of the situation.  Education costs money, and the government taxes you and I in order to pay for it.  As such, it should be both frugal and wise with the expenditure of our education dollars in maintaining the highest quality of education possible for the most people.  As such, I can envision a group of people could exist to whom it does not make economic or social justice sense to educate anymore.  But can we classify people into groups that are not deserving of education?

One of the most obvious classifications would be ethnic, but like almost all other cases of ethnic classification it isn’t very clean or very useful.  Racism aside, there is nothing inherent in any ethnic division that I can find to give credence to the idea that a group of people based on ethnicity does not need to be educated.  I am willing to accept that I may be too Eurocentric to recognize that there could exist a culture of people who do not need education and I’ll try to dispassionately listen to such an argument, but my gut feeling is that there is no ethnic group that needs not be educated.

Another obvious classification would be gender, and again I am not sure that is a useful classification when it comes to determining who gets educated and who does not.  It would seem to me that any attempt to deny education based on gender is less about justice and more about discrimination… in a much clearer case in my mind that ethnicity.  Again, my Eurocentric nature may be exerting itself.

Combining gender and ethnicity and you can start to come across a few arguments that may have some merit, although I personally consider the merits very weak and not worthy of consideration in my view of America.  I have heard it argued that in certain cultures certain genders have specific roles and that state education does not serve them well.  However, since I don’t believe that people are entirely defined by the culture they are born into, I don’t by that it is a strong argument.  If your culture is based on inequalities like that, I’m not really sure the government needs to be in the business of accepting and recognizing it.

The last simple category I can come up with is economic class.  I’ve heard discussions that children from a certain economic background should not receive public education because of the drain on the recourses.  I’ve heard it argued that the very rich should pay for their own education.  I’ve also heard that the very poor, who generally do the worst on standardized testing, should not be allowed to lower the standards of our schools and should therefore be denied access.  I find both of those arguments repugnant. For one, I do not think segregating the rich from the poor helps either group, and can seriously hinder both groups as well.  Rich kids might grow up to be rich adults, but they will have to interact with people from various backgrounds their entire life.  The bubble we live in as children shrinks rapidly as we become adults.  And I can’t see how we help poor kids by keeping them out of the eyes of rich ones.

We might try intelligence.  In China, if you took the top ten percent of their students, you’d have a group of people that outnumbers every man, woman and child in America.  The top one percent outnumbers every student in America. The brain power in China is immense, and that is who our children will be competing with on the global market. Does it not make sense to concentrate our efforts on the brightest of students?

I’d say no.  It is often not the brightest of students that bring forth the brightest of ideas.  Far to often, bright ideas emerge from less bright minds.  So ignoring those considered less than bright is to throw away a massive resource.  Ingenuity is often developed among those that have to try harder, and I believe ingenuity is needed more than brilliance in the emerging world economy.  So if we are going to educated on intelligence, we’d best not set our sites too high.

But what about too low?  Are there people so far down the intelligence ladder that we shouldn’t bother educating them at all? Autistic, Downs, mental defects… are there people who are even now being given an education that perhaps shouldn’t?

I would argue against it.  Modern medicine is allowing people to live longer and longer.  And many of these people are going to be eating up our resources for a long time.  Shouldn’t they be educated as far as we can manage so that there resource need is as low as possible? Some may never be truly independent, but by making the as independent as we possibly can we ensure that they do not take up more resources than they really need.

If you’ve read this far, you might start thinking that I couldn’t come up with a group of people who shouldn’t be educated.  I’ll admit that my gut tells me that there must be, but my sense of equity tells me that there isn’t.

Then it hit me.  Wait… while I don’t agree with the concept that education is an unalienable right, but I’m in the minority. So education is a right not derived by government but granted by the very existence of the individual.  And if we accept this concept, then it is the government’s duty to the people to protect the individual’s right to that education.  And like other unalienable rights, when one individual infringes on the rights of another, then the government should step in and protect the infringed, even at the expense of a right of the offender.

We have no problem with this in other aspects of our rights.  If someone infringes upon our right to freedom, through a kidnapping or other crime, we have no problem as a society of punishing that person by taking away their right to freedom, i.e. prison.  We will even take away a persons right to life under specific situations.  So it seems to make sense that while everyone is, indeed, entitled to an education, they can lose that right if they infringe on the right to education of someone else.

This gets into a tricky and slippery slope, without a doubt.  We would need the same level of safeguards and protections in place for other rights and crimes for what is going in education.  Taking away someone’s right is a serious business and should be done with care and scrutiny.

But there are those who are so selfish, so into their own wants and needs that they do take away other peoples right to an education.  And that’s where the government should step in.  If we are going to enshrine education as an unalienable right, then it does need to be protected.  Students (and sometimes parents) that are so disruptive that other students are unable to learn need to be dealt with.

In the case of special needs, it may mean a aide.  Since the current administration in HCS has FOUR aides, making sure each special needs child as an aide or two doesn’t seem excessive. In the case of legitimate behavior problems, since the purpose of education is to make more productive citizens, it doesn’t seem to make sense to throw them out and make the rest of society end up dealing with it poorly. Think it won’t go poorly? Check out how society dealt with the closing of mental institutions in the 60’s.

But where the focus should be placed is squarely on those disruptive students who have no legal excuse.  Those of an age to know better, or focus on the parents who do not help the school. I know of plenty of parents who’s children should be in some form of special needs, usually because of behavior problems. These kids need help, but because of the stigma parents seem to have they refuse to let their child get the help they need. In those cases, the parents should be punished, most likely financially, for the disruption of their children.

In the middle school grades, it should most likely be a joint action. Parents are still held responsible, but so are the kids to a lesser degree.  By high school, the focus and responsibility should go primarily to the student.  They are, after all, in the last stage of preparation for society.

But it doesn’t matter if you agree with me or not. It has become quite clear that our current governments place such a little value on education that the existence of schools have become a irritation. While society may accept that education is a right, government has accepted that education is a chore. School has turned into a test mill where students are taught a test instead of taught to think. And as a result, teacher cheating on standardized tests has increased. While I abhore the practice, I can understand it. Testing is everything in today’s education culture. Big money rests on the results.

So while I think that there may be people who SHOULD be denied access to education, I think there are far bigger problems inside education that need addressing. This is one more of the should be that has to go to the bottom of the pile behind much more pressing things.