Jan Resseger read Derek Black’s new book–a history of American public education by a constitutional lawyer–and loved it.

I read Black’s book and interviewed him on a Zoom about the book. I too loved it. Black makes clear that public education is the central American tradition, an idea envisioned by the Founding Fathers and realized over decades as an engine of our democracy. In a multicultural, diverse society, public schools bring students together from many backgrounds, to live and learn together.

Her review begins:

Derek Black’s stunning new book, School House Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, threads together a history that has rarely been collected in one volume. Black, a professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina, presents the history of an idea first articulated in the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, threatened again and again throughout our nation’s history but persistently revived and reanimated: that a system of public education is the one institution most essential for our democratic society. And, while the specific language defining a public education as each child’s fundamental right is absent from the U.S. Constitution, the guarantee of that right is embedded in the nation’s other founding documents, in the history of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, in the second Reconstruction during the Civil Rights Movement, and in every one of the state constitutions.

Today’s post will skim the history as Derek Black presents it; on Wednesday, this blog will explore how Black believes both public education and democracy are threatened today.

While the U.S. Constitution never formally names public education as the nation’s fundamental and necessary institution, the provision for public education is the centerpiece of the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787: “The Ordinances, and education’s role in them, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 is one of the most significant legal documents in our nation’s history and the current United States Code treats it as such… In many important ways, the history and effect of the Constitution and the Ordinances are inseparable. First, the documents were passed by many of the same people… Second, the Northwest Ordinance’s substance is a constitutional charter of sorts. Practically speaking, it established the foundational structure for the nation to grow and organize itself for the next two centuries. Precise rules for dividing up the land, developing the nation’s vast territories, and detailing the path that these territories would follow to become states are not the work of everyday legislation. They are the work of a national charter.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 64-65). “The 1785 Ordinance specified how every square inch of the territories would be divided into counties and towns. Every new town had to set aside one-ninth of its land and one-third of its natural resources for the financial support of education. And every town had to reserve one of its lots for the operation of a public school.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 62) The Northwest Ordinances named the urgent purpose of public education and prescribed a means of funding the schools.

Jumping way ahead to the early 1970s, after President Richard Nixon replaced Chief Justice Earl Warren with Chief Justice Warren Burger and the U.S. Supreme Court moved away from the principles embodied in Brown v. Board of Education, Black describes the significance of San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court case which declared that because the U.S. Constitution itself does not explicitly protect the right to public education, public schooling is not a fundamental right. Black believes the founding documents should be read to include the Northwest Ordinances and that the fundamental role of education is further affirmed through our nation’s troubled history: “(I)f you asked modern legal scholars whether education is a fundamental right protected by the federal Constitution, they would tell you no, and they would be correct in one sense. The United States Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) refused to recognize education as a fundamental right in 1972, reasoning that the Constitution neither explicitly nor implicitly protects education. The Court feared that nothing distinguished education from the various other things that are important in life, like food and shelter. The foregoing history, however, reveals that education is far different than anything else government might offer its citizens (other than the right to vote). The nation’s very concept of government is premised on an educated citizenry. From its infancy, the United States has sought to distinguish itself with education. More particularly, education has been the tool though which the nation has sought to perfect its democratic ideas.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 133)

And she continues:

I hope you will read Derek Black’s new book, for these comments merely skim the surface of his fascinating history of the American idea of public education. As he concludes his history, Black summarizes the book’s thesis: “The foregoing principles—the right to an adequate and equal education, making education the state’s absolute and foremost duty, requiring states to exert the necessary effort (financial or otherwise) to provide quality educational access, placing education above normal politics, and expecting courts to serve as a check—are all in the service of something larger: the original idea that education is the foundation of our constitutional democracy. Education is the means by which citizens preserve their other rights. Education gives citizens the tools they need to hold their political leaders accountable… Democracy simply does not work well without educated citizens.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224) Black reminds us, however: “The founders articulated educational goals not with any certainty that they would spring into reality simply by writing them down, but in the hope that we might one day live into them.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p 71)