Opinion/Conley: Thomas Dorr made education a fundamental right

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Patrick T. Conley is historian laureate of Rhode Island and the co-author (with retired Justice Robert Flanders) of "The Rhode Island Constitution: A Reference Guide."

Is a citizen’s right to a basic education a fundamental right?

Ironically, our Founding Fathers did not make it so despite their own deep learning shaped mainly by the Scholastic philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas. Therefore, the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1973 case of San Antonio Independent School Board v. Rodriguez left the power to give education a fundamental status to the states. That enhanced right would then allow students deprived of a basic education equal in quality to that provided to students in other local districts the right to sue their deficient school district using their state constitution’s equal protection clause.

Twenty-four states have elevated education to the status of a fundamental right. Unfortunately, Rhode Island is not among them despite the recent passage by our state Senate of a proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee “an equitable, adequate and meaningful education.” The House did not concur.

With House approval, the amendment would have been a ballot referendum in the November general election. According to the procedure I established in the 1973 Constitutional Convention, a majority vote of the electors would have made education a fundamental right in Rhode Island. This enhanced status would mandate our municipalities to meet the minimal amount needed to provide a basic education to its students. At present, Providence, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket do not spend enough per capita on education to provide adequate instruction, classroom materials, and facilities.

Ironically, Rhode Island would have been the first American state to make education a fundamental right, decades before any other, if the 1842 People’s Constitution prevailed as our basic law. That document’s principal draftsman was Thomas Wilson Dorr, whose educational reforms as chairman of the Providence School Committee were as impressive as his recommendations for constitutional change.

Dorr was influential in many major areas of Rhode Island life, and education was no exception. From 1834 until 1842 Dorr served as a member of the Providence School Committee, and from 1838 he was its president. In 1834 he was elected to the General Assembly and served until 1837.

In these capacities Dorr made major contributions toward the development of free public education in Rhode Island. As a state legislator he earmarked the famous federal surplus distribution of 1836 for the state’s permanent school fund. As the leader of the Providence School Committee, he played the principal role in implementing reforms including the appointment of Nathan Bishop as Providence’s first superintendent of schools, the establishment of teacher certification and training programs, the creation of Rhode Island’s first public high school, and the construction of modern grammar schools.

Against this backdrop one can better understand the education provisions of the People’s Constitution, the major product of the uprising known as the Dorr Rebellion, and note the differences between that document and the Law and Order Constitution drafted by those who vanquished Dorr. That Constitution, as revised and amended, is still our basic law.

First and foremost, the People’s Constitution made education a fundamental right. Dorr deemed education so essential that it was mandated not only in a separate article (XII), but also in the declaration of rights that decreed it “an imperative duty of the legislature to promote the establishment of free [not merely public] schools” (Article I, Section 5). The Law and Order Constitution contained no such provision in its declaration of rights, a fact our Supreme Court noted in its landmark decision City of Pawtucket v. Sundlun (1995).

The Law and Order Constitution not only deleted Dorr’s education provision, it was far less liberal than Dorr’s document in such areas as voting rights, apportionment, amendment procedures, separation of powers, and civil liberties.

Most of those defects have been remedied over the past 180 years, except for the status of education. Hence the present effort to make this cornerstone of democracy a fundamental right.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Opinion/Conley: Thomas Dorr made education a fundamental right