National education needs a bill of rights

February 22, 1994|By Stephen Arons

THE structure of schooling in the United States is about to undergo a change so fundamental that it amounts to a reconstitution of education. The change will begin with the nationalization of important areas of education policy and will eventually result in the creation of a national public secondary school curriculum enforced by performance tests.

The last time the country experienced such a basic shift in the relationship of individuals to their government -- the adoption of the U.S. Constitution -- the protection of individual liberty was secured by the adoption of the Bill of Rights. The proposed reallocation of federal power over schooling -- and its effect on the freedoms of intellect and belief -- has been accompanied by little debate.

The most significant step toward nationalizing education policy, the creation of a national curriculum, can be found in two sections of former President Bush's proposal, now reworked by President Clinton, called the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. The bill passed the House in the fall and the Senate earlier this month.

The bill calls, in its curriculum sections, for the creation of national

content standards in eight subject areas: English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, arts, history and geography. These standards would be submitted for approval to the proposed National Education Standards and Improvement Council, a politically appointed body of 20 people.

The national content standards would become the basis for approving state standards and are also likely to be used for training and certifying teachers and developing textbooks. They would serve as the framework for reauthorization of all federal education programs.

In a preview of ideological battles likely to develop once the bill becomes law, Sen. Jesse Helms proposed and the Senate adopted an amendment that would deny federal aid to schools that bar children from engaging in "constitutionally protected" school prayer.

There is much language in the bills describing the national standards as voluntary and requiring that no federal education aid be made conditional on state acceptance of these standards. But the bureaucracy the proposal would create suggests that these protections ought to be viewed with skepticism.

The situation is roughly analogous to that of 1787, when the draft Constitution was presented to the newly independent states as a remedy for the failings of the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution created substantial new federal powers, raising the fear that individual liberties might be at risk. The Federalists claimed that by creating a government of limited powers based on a system of checks and balances, they had secured the blessings of liberty.

But these assurances were regarded by many as insufficient. As a result, Congress adopted and the states ratified amendments called the Bill of Rights. It was a means of assuaging public concerns and ensuring that the good intentions of the founders could not turn into the repressive manipulations of succeeding generations of public officials.

The good intentions of today's educators and government policy-planners are manifest. But the magnitude of the change in federal power that they are proposing in Goals 2000 is so great, and the importance of individual freedom to the success of schooling so fundamental, that an education bill of rights is essential.

What should an education bill of rights contain? Broadly, it ought to secure in schools the rights of conscience, of intellect, of dissent and of expression against the pressure of political majorities and governmental coercion. In particular, it should:

* Secure the right of families to choose other than a government-run school and of subcultures to provide schooling consistent with their deeply held beliefs.

* Secure the right of nongovernment schools to be free of content regulation and to adopt goals and standards of their own choosing.

* Protect public school students and teachers from having to confess a belief in any ideological point of view and from having imposed on them an orthodoxy of beliefs that contradicts their conscience.

* Secure the status of teachers as professionals by enhancing academic freedom and due process protections against job loss, discrimination, textbook and library censorship or other penalties arising from political pressures or content-based government requirements.

* Protect the rights of expression, inquiry, press and privacy of public school students.

Virtually all schooling is based on beliefs and seeks to transmit beliefs. To create a curriculum enforced by competency tests is to invite families, subcultures and interest groups to do battle with each other over whose beliefs will be established in that curriculum. To create a national curriculum is to escalate these conflicts over conscience and to amplify governmental power to restrict diversity and dissent.

Stephen Arons is a professor of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts.

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