A Slow Slide into Mediocrity?
WHILE recent public attention has centered on whether or not the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade and thereby return the regulation of abortion to state legislatures, the increasingly conservative Supreme Court has already undercut another fundamental right--that to education.
In Kadrmas v. Dickenson Public Schools, which was decided last summer, the high court ruled that primary and secondary schooling is not a right which all children can enjoy, but a consumer good available to those who can afford it.
The 5-4 decision ruled that the public schools of Dickinson, North Dakota were not obligated to provide free transportation to school for Sarita Kadrmas, an indigent child living 16 miles away. Whether or not Kadrmas could enjoy her education depended entirely on whether she could get to school each day.
The court was aware that the issue in question was not merely transportation per se, but the importance of public education. In writing the majority decision, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor addressed the issue directly: "Nor have we accepted the proposition that education is a fundamental right like equality of the franchise, which should trigger strict scrutiny when the government interferes with an individual's access to it."
THE court's recent decision is a national disgrace that is out of step with the constitution. Education is integral to carrying out the functions of government sketched out in the constitution's preamble. In the age of information, how could a government better "ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and secure the blessings of liberty" than by educating its citizens?
The Kadrmas decision also contradicts a precedent which bars any state action "[promoting] the creation and perpetuation of a sub-class of illiterates with in our boundaries." In our society, education is the crucial first rung of the social ladder. It is difficult to imagine anything that would more effectively create a "sub-class of citizens" than making education inaccessible to the poor.
Of course, Sarita Kadrmas by herself does not constitute a "sub-class" of citizens. But the power of Supreme Court decisions is in their role as precedents. The Kadrmas decision establishes a pattern of discrimination on the basis of wealth that, if generalized, would prove catastrophic.
By the year 2000, the total number of minority children will have increased by more than 25 percent from what it is today while the number of white children will only increase two-tenths of one percent, according to a Washington-based advocacy group. Many of these minority children will be poor, the offspring of today's impoverished ghetto and barrio youth.
DENYING the poor the personal development and fuller life that often begins with education would be a national tragedy. But the poor would not be the only ones hurt. The Supreme Court's time-bomb decision threatens American society and our economic well-being as a whole.
Education is vital in a modern economy. Industries relying on cheap, unskilled labor are rapidly leaving this country for Asia and South America. The United States' economic future lies in the high technology and information industries which demand a skilled and literate population. Education, or human capital, will increasingly become the key to our nation's economic competitiveness.
Bailing out of our commitment to educate all citizens regardless of income would also have wrenching social implications. In our society, education is the crucial determinant of income and occupational prestige. If large percentages of poor, minority children do not have a chance to learn and start climbing the economic ladder, America will become a society increasingly polarized by race.
FINALLY, universal education is an essential component of our political system. Popular democracy rejects noblesse oblige in favor of the sovereignty of the common people. However, this presupposes an informed electorate or at least one that is capable of becoming informed through reading and writing.
In the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court stood firmly behind education as one of the pillars of our society: "Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments...In these days it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he or she is denied the opportunity of an education."
The recent Kadrmas case represents a shameful retreat from the position laid out in Brown. In the words of 82-year old Justice William Brennan, who wrote a dissent in the Kadrmas case, the ruling shows "a callous indifference to the realities of the life of the poor," who demographically represent our country's future.
Economically, socially and politically the quality of our lives is bound up with the education of our citizens. While the Kadrmas case obviously does not instantly create a society of illiterates, its precedent clears the way for a slow slide into national mediocrity.