Is There a Right to an Education?
The second in a series
One of the most deeply held assumptions of the modern world is that education is a fundamental human right. This “right” to an education is said to be so basic, so essential to human dignity, that only the State can assume the responsibility of providing it for every child because not every parent can or will ensure that his or her children will be properly educated.
The classic statement upholding and extending the logic of this principle is contained in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory (Article 26, item 1, emphasis added).”
In the United States, this assumption has dominated education policy for well over 100 years. Conservatives no less than liberals believe that all children have a basic human right to an education, which of course means a government-issued education. Their belief in this right is why conservatives work so hard to reform America’s system of government education.
Consider, for instance, the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” Act, which was built on the premise that children have an inherent right to an education. So, too, with the conservative case for vouchers and charter schools. More recently, a coalition of conservatives and liberals launched a ballot initiative in California to guarantee not only a child’s right to an education but a right to a “good” education. The ballot initiative is named “The Constitutional Right to a High-Quality Public Education Act,” and its key provision states: “Any law, regulation, or policy or any official action affecting students generally, which does not put the interest of the students first, shall be deemed to deny this right.” If there is one issue on which virtually all Republicans and Democrats agree, it is this: all children have an unalienable right to a government-mandated, government-funded, and government-delivered education.
I reject this claim as both false and immoral.
This essay and those that follow reopen the question of rights and education. These essays take up, broadly speaking, three questions: first, do children have a fundamental human right to an education; second, do parents have a right to determine how, in what, and by whom their children will be educated; and third, does the government have a right to educate children in whatever manner it pleases? A related fourth question that I will address only in passing is: do taxpayers, particularly childless taxpayers, have a right to opt out of paying for the education of someone else’s children?
These are big, difficult, and important questions and much hinges on how we answer them. According to Plato’s Socrates, there is no question more important than how we educate the young. Nothing less than the future of the republic is at stake. The issue of rights and education is the fundamental issue of our time. Once we settle the answers to these questions, we can then determine how, by whom, and in what children are best educated. To get the education of our young right in practice, we must first begin right in theory.
Generally speaking, my goal in this series of essays is to determine whether the various rights claims (e.g., those of children, parents, the government, and taxpayers) can be validated philosophically or if they are simply sentimental prejudices. The purpose of this particular essay is to set the stage for the essays that follow by clearly defining the problem of rights and education via a series of probing questions.
Defining the Problem
Applying the concept “rights” to children is a remarkably complicated problem that raises a host of challenging questions that go well beyond the issue of education. The fundamental questions are these:
Do children qua children have rights?
If children do have rights qua children, what are they and from what source are they derived?
Do children have the same rights as adults?
When and how do children acquire the full rights afforded to adults?
Do children have a right to liberty and property?
Do children have positive rights-claims to be fed, clothed, sheltered, protected, and even educated? If yes, against whom should that right be directed—their parents or the State?
To what kind and to how much education are children entitled by right?
Do children have a right to decide whether or not to go to school?
Inseparably linked to and significantly complicating the question of children’s rights is the issue of parental rights. Again, consider some of the basic questions:
Do parents have rights qua parents?
What are the rights of parents and from whence are they derived?
What is the relationship of parental rights to children’s rights?
Do parents have rights claims to their children?
These fundamental questions about parental rights give rise to several difficult corollary questions:
Do parents have a “property” right in their children?
Do parents have limited or unlimited rights to govern their children as they see fit?
Do parents have the right to initiate force (e.g., spank) against their children, and, if so, how much?
What actions by parents would constitute a violation of the rights of their children?
Do parents have a right to control the education of their children, or is that a matter better left to the State?
Are parents morally responsible for providing their children with a certain kind or quality of education?
To translate the theory of individual rights into practice, we must also consider how these rights are to be protected and by whom, which means that we must also describe the role played by government in protecting the rights of individuals. The concept “individual rights” and its application to children and parents is little more than a phantom if there is no neutral arbiter and civil authority to protect individuals and their rights and to punish those who violate them.
Any discussion of rights must therefore also involve a discussion of the role played by the government in protecting the rights of individuals. For instance:
How shall the government determine if a child’s or a parent’s rights have been violated?
If parents do not protect—indeed, if they violate—the rights of their children, how shall the government protect children?
Short of objectively identifiable abuse, should the government have the authority to direct parents to fulfill their parental responsibilities and to punish them if they do not?
Under what conditions should the government have the authority to take children from their parents either temporarily or permanently?
Finally, how can the rights of parents be protected from the unjust actions of the government?
Generally speaking, the particular difficulties associated with identifying and defining the rights of children and parents are twofold: first, we must discern how the concept “rights” can be applied to children who have neither the intellectual capacity to understand nor the physical means to exercise their rights; and, second, we must recognize that children’s rights must be understood and applied in the context of the rights of parents.
The rights and responsibilities of children are connected to and dependent upon—indeed, they must overlap and are inseparable from—the rights and responsibilities of parents and vice versa. Because the interests of children and parents are so closely linked through bonds of natural reciprocity, it is extremely difficult to sort out the precise boundaries between these two categories of rights. Ultimately, the challenge is to identify and define the three-way juridical relationship between parents, children, and the government.
The next essay in this series on rights and education will, one, provide a general definition of what rights are, and then, two, establish the metaphysical foundations for the rights of children and those of their parents. Succeeding essays will drill down even further to define and delineate the particular rights and responsibilities of parents and children and the role of government in protecting those rights and responsibilities.