Public Education and the Social Contract: Restoring the Promise in an Age of Diversity and Division

September 2017

Building on the premise that closing achievement gaps is an economic imperative both to regain international educational supremacy and to maintain global economic competitiveness, I ask whether it is possible to rewrite the social contract so that education is a fundamental right—a statutory guarantee—that is both uniform across states and federally enforceable. I argue that the federal government was complicit in aggravating educational inequality by not guaranteeing free, public education as a basic right during propitious political moments; by enabling the creation of a segregated public higher education system; by relegating the Department of Education and its predecessors to a secondary status in the federal administration, thereby compromising its enforcement capability; and by proliferating incremental reforms while ignoring the unequal institutional arrangements that undermine equal opportunity to learn. History shows that a strong federal role can potentially strengthen the educational social contract.