Is Education a "Right"?

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A movement came about in the latter half of the 20th century to invent new “rights,” and it has continued in our own day. The United States Supreme Court called abortion a “right” in 1973, and then in 2015 it called same-sex marriage a “right.” And now many people are pushing for healthcare to be identified as a universal “right.”

Unfortunately, what people often mean by labeling something a “right” is that they want the government to provide something that belongs to the free market (e.g. healthcare) or protect something that is immoral (e.g. abortion).

Though not as prominent as healthcare in the news as of late, there has also been a push to identify education as a “right.” In 1948, the United Nations called education a “right” in Article 26 of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document says, “Everyone has the right to education,” which “shall be free” and “compulsory.” In other words, the U.N. declared public education to be a “right,” as only government uses tax-funding (making it "free") and coercion (making it "compulsory").  

Education Is Not a Constitutional Right

So what does the U.S. Constitution say about whether education is a “right”? The Supreme Court actually addressed this question in 1973 in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. The Court said no, education is not a “fundamental right”—at least not according to the federal Constitution. However, the Court said States may identify education as a “right” according to each State’s constitution.

This was a correct decision. The U.S. Constitution is a limiting document on the federal government. It delegates express powers to the federal government and leaves everything else to the States. (This principle is made explicit in the Tenth Amendment). The Constitution says nothing about education because education was and is a State issue.

So what about the States? Well it depends on the State constitution and the interpretation by the State court. Some States, like California, have said that education is a “right,” as was decided in Serrano v. Priest (Cal. 1977). What the California Supreme Court meant by this is that every child has a “right” to a basic education level, and the government has to provide this education through adequate public schools.

This interpretation is possible because every State constitution has some sort of education clause regarding public education. While some States have followed California in declaring public education to be a “right,” many have not.

Positive vs. Negative Rights

States can say what they want about education. But is education really a “right”? Here we must specify in what sense we use the word “right.” Philosophers make the helpful distinction between positive and negative rights.

Negative rights refer to things we should be able to do without interference from others, such as own property. Negative rights are “liberties,” and they come from God. We see this in the Declaration of Independence, which said that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Declaration followed the Lockean triad of “life, liberty, and property.” This is also in line with biblical principles, as these rights are implied by God’s commandments regarding the prohibition of murder (6th commandment) and theft (8th commandment). In other words, God says you have the right to not be killed and not have your things stolen from you. This also implies the right to move freely and engage in commerce.

In contrast to negative rights, positive rights refer to things we are owed by others. Positive rights are “entitlements,” and they come from contractual arrangements. An example of this would be a voluntary insurance plan. If you contracted with an insurance company to be reimbursed on the condition that your house burns down, then the insurance company will owe you money if your house burns down. The contracted financial reimbursement would be a positive right. 

Rights Come From God, Not Government

So what is the relationship between government and rights? Government is supposed to protect our God-given negative rights, such as the right to not be murdered or physically assaulted (life), the right to worship and engage in commerce (liberty), and the right to keep your stuff (property). However, government is also supposed to protect our voluntarily-contracted positive rights. The government should enforce contracts, wills, insurance agreements, etc.

This is an important distinction. The government is supposed to protect rights, not provide them. And here we see the error of identifying education as a “right.” Education is a service that must be provided by someone else. It is not a “right” in the sense of a liberty to be protected (a negative right), nor is it an entitlement that is to be enforced (a positive right). Education is only a positive right if it is part of a voluntary contract, such as a contract for a particular private school for the 2017-2018 school year.

Someone may respond that education is a “right” because it is a “need” that everyone has. However, human “needs” are not “rights” that the government owes us. Of course, humans have basic needs for survival. We need food, water, and shelter. But these are not “rights.” You have to work for them. As the Apostle Paul said, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). (And in the case of children, it is the obligation of parents to work and provide for them.)

In the same way, education is not a right. No good or service is a right. No one owes you food or shelter or an oil change—not your friend, and certainly not the government. You have to pay for these things. That’s how life works.

The Difference Between Police and Schools

The confusion over this issue stems from years of government intervention in America in all areas of life, especially education. Public schools are by definition socialist schools, as the government owns the means of production. So it should not surprise us that those trained in a socialist school system come out supporting the system.

This has gone on for so long now that the Supreme Court makes stupid comments like it did in Ambach v. Norwick (1979)—“Public education, like the police function, ‘fulfills a most fundamental obligation of government to its constituency’” (citing Foley). This is absurd. Education is not a “fundamental obligation” of government. That the Court can compare government schools to the police and not be dismissed as imbeciles is evidence that the American public has drank the Kool-Aid.

There is an obvious difference between police and public schools. Police, like judges, are supposed to protect your negative rights of life, liberty, and property, as well as your voluntarily-contracted positive rights. We therefore do not refer to police themselves as a “right.” That’s the whole point of government—it is supposed to protect your rights.

Education, on the other hand, is a service. Unlike the police, it does not protect your rights. While one may respond that law enforcement is also a service, its service is clearly distinguishable as having the goal of protecting rights. Education does not do this.

Your only right in regards to education is the right to freedom of education. You have a God-given right to go to school where you want (as long as the school agrees to have you) and study what you want. The government should protect that right. But it should not provide the service.

Furthermore, it is quite easy to see how people can get an education apart from the government providing schools. In fact, this is how most people throughout history received an education. (And outside of New England, it was the American tradition before the Civil War.) People were educated by their parents, a private school, a tutor, or self-study. And these means of education are all available today. We still have the opportunity for homeschool, private school, and self-education.

The “Right” to Steal from Others

Now the response here by public school advocates is that education should be provided by government because it benefits everyone, namely by providing an educated citizenry. Thus, even if you do not send kids to public school, you benefit by others being educated who will participate in commerce, vote in elections, and be on juries.

It is certainly true that we in some sense benefit by the education of others, but it is a major assumption that the government must provide this education. To follow this logic, we also benefit from other people being healthy (they can engage better in commerce, they make better voters and jury members, they keep health insurance costs down, etc.). Must the government then provide healthcare as well? This reveals the absurdity of the argument. 

This is the central fallacy committed by all advocates of government schooling. They assume that only government can provide education, particularly for the poor. Yet while we all want the poor to receive an education, there is no reason wealthier people should be taxed so as to pay for the education of others. Do public school advocates make this same assumption about housing or food for poor people (or all people)? These are the same arguments for full-blown socialism. So maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that people coming out of socialized schools are in fact advocating for government-provided everything, from daycare to healthcare.

Education is a Privilege, Not a Right

We need to stop calling everything we want a “right.” Government does not owe us food, education, or healthcare. And it should be obvious to all that government intervention in these things only makes them worse. If inner city schools were privately run, we would never hear the end of how bad the free market it. But when the government runs these lousy schools, the solution is just “more money.”

The fact is, when people say a good or service is a “right” from government, what they really mean is that they want someone else to pay for it. They want the government to steal from others (I’m sorry, “tax”) and use that money to pay for the goods or services they want.

It’s better to understand education as a privilege. Education is great. We want all people to have it. But no one owes it to you. Parents are responsible for their children and should provide them with at least some basic education. But outside of that, education is not something you can demand from others. If you have the opportunity for more education, you should view it as a privilege. It’s something to be thankful for, not something to demand.

Government can call something a “right,” but that does not make it such. Rights are natural and come from God. The government does not owe you anything except to protect these rights. In other words, the only “right” the government owes you regarding education is that it should leave you free to make your own educational decisions.

This is the irony in all of this. Government education—which is based on the premise that education is a positive “right”—actually violates people’s negative rights by forcing them to pay for a service regardless of whether they want it or will use it. Thus education is not a right, and public education is a violation of your right to private property.