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By Jules Lobel
Nearly 150 years ago, Pennsylvanians made a commitment to quality public education when they adopted a Constitution with an education clause that begins, “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”
Today, the meaning of that language is a central issue before a Commonwealth Court judge in a lawsuit that challenges Pennsylvania’s widely criticized school funding system as not just unfair and inadequate but unconstitutional.
So what does the education clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution first drafted in the 1870s mean?
Derek Black, an education law scholar and professor at the University of South Carolina, who recently testified at the school funding trial in Harrisburg, provided important insights.
As he explained, the 1874 Pennsylvania Constitution laid the foundation for the opening, upgrading, and support of public schools in every corner of the commonwealth.
The record of the delegates’ debates is eight volumes, each running 800 pages, and education was the top topic. Delegates delved into the minutiae of public schooling, debating both mundane and large issues.
According to Black, the extensive nature of the delegates’ debates showed just how hard they were trying to get it right – to achieve the “best form of education system.” They regarded public education to be “the duty” of the state as a matter of justice and self-preservation.
At the time, the state funded so-called pauper schools, serving the poorest children. Communities typically funded their own local schools, which proved a struggle in the state’s frontier areas. Taxes in some places were oppressive.
The delegates expressed no interest in sticking with that status quo patchwork of decent schools in more established towns and bare-bones schools in communities unable to raise adequate revenues. Black said they disdainfully dismissed the legislature’s prior efforts – “a farce,” they called it.
Instead, the framers mandated one system for all students. For the first time, school attendance would be mandatory at a time when 75,000 young people across the state received no schooling at all.
But according to Black, the delegates were not merely interested in providing a system of schools for all. They sought to ensure a high quality of education, mandating no less than $1 million funding in the education clause itself – an effort, he said, to thwart the tightwad tendencies of the General Assembly. That sum represented a dramatic 40 percent increase over previous annual spending.
“Thorough and efficient” was a term of art in use in other states’ constitutions, ultimately embraced by the Pennsylvanians as core language for the new education clause. As Black noted, “efficient” in the context of the 1870s was analogous to “effective” – unlike the modern concept of business efficiency.
Their debates made clear they linked education to preservation of democracy. Black summarized their viewpoint saying, “A republican form of government is not self-sustaining and doesn’t preserve itself if its constituent members are not educated.”
The drafters were emphatic that Pennsylvania children should be prepared for the duties of citizenship – that is, to become informed voters. And the system was for the benefit of children themselves, not just democracy.
Black’s meticulous historical research into delegates’ debates and deep knowledge of other state constitutions revealed that Pennsylvania’s goal was to elevate the quality of education in local schools. Delegates looked at every little issue to make it “crystal clear” to the legislature their commitment to high-quality education, he said.
There were some good schools in Pennsylvania at the time, so the delegates used the term ‘thorough and efficient’ to mandate a floor below which no school in Pennsylvania could fall. The idea was to lift up struggling schools to be “on the same plane” as the state’s well-regarded schools, Black concluded.
High-quality schools were the goal and the standard set down in the Pennsylvania Constitution nearly 150 years ago. That is not the current reality in large portions of our state. But that goal and standard are what commonwealth children and educators continue to be entitled to now.
The current constitutional challenge to the way the state funds education is an historic opportunity to truly actualize a thorough and efficient system of public education. That goal is not only fair and equitable, it is essential to a functioning democracy. It is harder to vote intelligently, participate in governance, and exercise the right to free speech without an adequate education. The framers of the Pennsylvania Constitution 150 years ago recognized that truth; it is tragic that we have forgotten what was so widely accepted long ago.
Jules Lobel is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Law School.
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