In the spring of 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, reminded the world that, Blacks were not and could never become citizens of the United States.
Taney used the United States Constitution as the basis for his evil assertion. Today, judges are using perspectives similar to Taney’s to declare that Black children aren’t guaranteed a quality education – despite worldwide acknowledgement that without a quality education, one is unlikely to be able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
Based on the education that is afforded to poor Black and Latino students in comparison to wealthy and/or white citizens, not much has changed in the views of many interpreters of the Constitution. Because, according to plenty of politicians and the constituents who support, elect and re-elect them, students “have no fundamental right to equality in education.”
A federal judge in Detroit doubled down on this and declared that despite the absolutely horrific conditions Black kids were forced to endure, the Constitution did not afford students the right to a quality education if they couldn’t pay for it.
Families in Detroit and Pennsylvania, and other places are suing for the right to a quality education. Many people believe that a quality education is a human right – right up there with clean water, air, and food.
But, in Pennsylvania, despite the fact that the state constitution stipulates that the PA legislature “shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the commonwealth,’ many of our local legislators largely believe what people like Judge Taney believed many years ago – that Black kids have no rights that a white man must respect – including an education.
If the U.S. Constitution cannot be interpreted in a way that guarantees a quality education for all, either add an amendment, or just burn it.
The abysmal conditions and appalling outcomes in plaintiffs’ schools are unprecedented, the complaint said. And they would be unthinkable in schools serving predominantly white, affluent student populations.
A federal judge declared that what students are subjected to in some of Detroit schools was “nothing short of devastating…Giving students the opportunity to learn to read was ‘of incalculable importance’,” adding that some level of literacy was necessary for voting, applying for a job and securing a place to live.
But those points do not necessarily make access to literacy a fundamental right.
Too often, those in power today, are still operating as Constitution Originalists – framing their interpretations as they know the racist white writers of the Constitution would. Only through this constricted thinking can Pennsylvania’s lawyers declare that Black kids don’t have the right to an equitable education. Only through Constitutional originalism is it fathomable that a federal judge in Detroit can rule that literacy (for Black kids) isn’t a Constitutional right.
We need to start really looking at why the Constitution, this invention of some rich racist white men, can continue to remain more important than the inalienable rights given by God.
Another amendment is in order that explicitly directs states to provide a just and equitable education to all children. If that’s not possible, we should burn the parchment the Constitution is written on and start over with a far more inclusive vision of what it means to be a citizen of the United States, than the racist white people who stole it.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.