Anytime you hear government officials mandating new behaviors to a broad swath of the population, that mandate is likely to run afoul of the First Amendment. And so it is with President Obama’s announcement last night that all states must “require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.”
Although Mr. Obama made other pronouncements about education — see Dana Goldstein’s good summary analysis in The Nation — the stay-in-school mandate was the one that caught my ear, since enforcing it would run afoul of both the United States Supreme Court and our historic commitment to religious liberty.
The case that established the precedent originated in Wisconsin, where a group of Amish families were convicted of violating the state’s school attendance law by withdrawing their children after they graduated from the eighth grade (the law required kids to stay in school until they turned 16). In the place of further formal schooling, the Amish children were expected to begin vocational apprenticeships in their communities that would better prepare them for the particulars of Amish life (and shield them from the vagaries of high school, which their parents felt would endanger their eventual salvation in the eyes of God).
The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the rights of the Amish families, a ruling the U.S. Supreme Court then affirmed. As Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, “There is no doubt as to the power of a State, having a high responsibility for education of its citizens, to impose reasonable regulations for the control and duration of basic education. . . [But] however strong the State’s interest in universal compulsory education, it is by no means absolute to the exclusion or subordination of all other interests.”
I would imagine that Obama’s logic for the new mandate mirrors the logic that drove Wisconsin’s state officials, who advanced two arguments in support of their compulsory-education law. Referencing the writings of Thomas Jefferson, they pointed out how essential some degree of education is toward preparing citizens to “participate effectively and intelligently in our open political system if we are to preserve freedom and independence.” And they noted that education “prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society.”
The Court accepted the merit of both assumptions — and saw a limit to the logic. “When Thomas Jefferson emphasized the need for education as a bulwark of a free people against tyranny,” Burger wrote, “there is nothing to indicate he had in mind compulsory education through any fixed age beyond a basic education. . . . The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”
Consequently, the likelihood that this idea goes beyond last night’s speech is almost nil. But the bigger issue is our willingness to accept such a simplistic notion about how to solve our school’s dropout crisis. Although there are myriad reasons why young people drop out of school, many do so because they feel uninspired and unengaged. If we begin with that basic fact, the real crime is less that so many children are dropping out, and more that so many of our schools are failing to ignite their students’ passion for learning or adequately prepare them for the world they will enter as adults.
The president’s proposal is therefore merely the latest example of our tendency to craft policies that address the symptom, and ignore the root. And that’s not change I can believe in.