AMHERST, Mass. - In a new book on public education, a University of Massachusetts professor says an amendment to the U.S. Constitution may be needed to guarantee equal funding for all children while barring any government body from determining educational content.
In "Short Route to Chaos: Conscience, Community, and the Re-Constitution of American Schooling" (University of Massachusetts Press), Stephen Arons, professor of legal studies, suggests a number of reforms based on the principle that education, like religion, is a matter of conscience, and that all families should be free to choose where their children attend school.
Arons calls the current system in which local school boards, guided by state and federal agencies, determine what students are taught a "politicized, majority-driven system that undermines individual conscience, social diversity, and community building." Arons criticizes both the "liberal education establishment" and the "conservatives" allied with the Christian Right, saying both groups are engaged in "school wars" over who will control what is taught in public schools. He also contends that local control of schools has failed to deliver quality, equal education.
Arons analyzes the 1994 federal education law, Goals 2000, as a case in point demonstrating how current reform efforts have gone astray. He says the law, by attempting to standardize education, leads to increased polarization and political conflict which, in turn, cause both the loss of individual liberty by students, teachers, and families and diminished cultural diversity. The law, backed by both the Bush and Clinton administrations, increases the role of government in setting education policy by imposing national and state standards. Arons argues this does more harm than good to troubled schools and contradicts the most fundamental principles of constitutional democracy. "Goals 2000 reflects an increasing public willingness to let government rather than teachers and families determine the content and direction of education. This trend, and its consequences for conscience and community, threatens to set American public education on a short route to chaos," Arons says in the introduction to the book.
What is needed, Arons says, is a wide-ranging public debate about the re-constitution of education. "We need a basic discourse about how we want to define the fundamental principles of schooling," Arons says. "And the only way to make sure the government stays out of educational content, but remains involved in funding, is by constitutional change." Arons says such a debate could lead to reform of our public education system by adding freedom of education and equitable funding to the list of fundamental rights explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution.