Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

Proposed Equal Education Amendment

Section 1. Equality of Educational opportunity under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, sex, income or place of residence. 

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. 

When they passed the No Child Left Behind Act, Congress got their school reform priorities ass backwards. When they replaced it with the Every Child Succeeds Act they got it ass backwards again. Before requiring that no child be left behind or that every child succeed, our lawmakers first must remedy the educational inequalities that make their demands ridiculous. 

The Present Situation

Outrageous inequalities in per student educational spending persist across the nation. (1) Here is a brief sampler of the worst inequalities that disadvantage so many of America’s children: 

Pocantico Hills, NY $61,029  Graham, OK $648.00     $60,381
Montauk Union, N.J. $36,576  Middletown, NH $1,333       $35,243 
Island Park, NY $35,416  Scio, OR $2,195    $33,221 
Asbury Park, N.J. $33,881  Lucerne Valley, CA. $3,168       $30,713     [2]


These are the most extreme differences in the nation. But they serve to emphasize the enormously different resources our nation’s students encounter. No child left behind in Graham, Oklahoma? Every child succeeds in Middletown, New Hampshire? Don’t be ridiculous!

Generally, low per pupil spending correlates with inadequate family income and depressed property values. This is why needy kids living in impoverished areas typically go to under-resourced schools. But even when family income is roughly comparable, dramatic per-pupil spending inequalities still persist.  [3]

Granted, greater per student spending is no guarantee of better educational quality. But the conservative pundits who assure us that schools won’t be made better by throwing money at them should, and probably do, know better. In what other areas of life would they argue similarly? Would they expect equally good results from professional baseball teams that were as unequally funded as many school districts are? Would drastic cuts in particular Army units resources have no impact on these unit’s preparedness?  Do radical differences in family income have no impact on families?

Why Care?

This nations endemic educational inequality makes no moral or practical sense. And it certainly does not enhance the nation’s competitiveness —a concern that topped the list of complaints about our schools in A Nation At Risk — the prominent 1983 report on American education, from the National Commission on Excellence in Education. You may remember that it fueled the widespread dissatisfaction with the state of America’s public schools that has been with us ever since. 

It is hard to overstate the importance of the nation’s educational inequalities. In Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), a unanimous Court recognized that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” Yet child after child is disadvantaged simply because of where they live. Such inequality is profoundly unfair to all impacted students, parents and educators. 

What is more, given the importance of schooling to the electoral process, free speech and national competitiveness, it is unwise for the nation. 

Judicial Remedy Fails

There was a time when the judiciary seemed to offer a solution. In the early 1970’s a number of state and federal courts ruled that this sort of educational inequality violated the disadvantaged student’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, in the landmark SAN ANTONIO SCHOOL DISTRICT v. RODRIGUEZ, 411 U.S. 1 (1973), the US Supreme Court provided a different interpretation. They ruled that the right to an equal education, indeed the right to any schooling whatsoever, is neither explicitly nor implicitly guaranteed by the Constitution. 

The court acknowledged that inequalities between school districts do, in fact, deprive many U.S. youngsters of equal educational opportunity. But a majority of the justices were quick to add that there was “… no evidence that the financing system discriminates against any traditionally definable category of “poor” people or that it results in the absolute deprivation of education.”

In other words, since educational inequality impacts a wide variety of “poor” people, and no youngsters are totally dispossessed of public schooling, just horribly short changed, the equal protection clause of the Constitution does not apply. One wonders if the justices would have reached the same conclusion if anyone they loved were included among the victims. But, of course, their grandchildren, not to mention the children and grandchildren of most Congressmen and Executive branch officials, go to private schools. 

The decision was not unanimous. Justice Marshall and Justice Douglass vigorously dissented. In fact Marshall, with Douglass concurring, wrote: 

… the majority’s holding can only be seen as a retreat from our historic commitment to equality of educational opportunity and as unsupportable acquiescence in a system which deprives children in their earliest years of the chance to reach their full potential as citizens. The Court does this despite the absence of any substantial justification for a scheme that arbitrarily channels educational resources in accordance with the amount of taxable wealth within each district or state.”

Justice Marshall emphasized the unlikelihood of a political solution to this inequality. 

The right of every American to an equal start in life, so far as the provision of a state service as important as education is concerned, is far too vital to permit state discrimination on grounds as tenuous as those presented by this record. Nor can I accept the notion that it is sufficient to remit these appellees to the vagaries of the political process which, contrary to the majority’s suggestion, has proved singularly unsuited to the task of providing a remedy for this discrimination.  I, for one, am unsatisfied with the hope of an ultimate “political” solution sometime in the indefinite future while, in the meantime, countless children unjustifiably receive inferior educations that “may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone….” [4]

Marshall’s skepticism concerning political solutions has proven accurate. Thirty-three years after Rodriquez, shameful educational inequalities still persist and the political process has proven a totally inadequate remedy. That is why it is time to consider amending the Constitution to guarantee equal educational opportunity to every child in America. 

Lasting Change

Unlike the Johnson era Great Society legislation that lost its momentum in the Reagan years, a constitutional amendment would apply the consistent and persistent pressure necessary to sustain educational equalization from congress to congress and administration to administration. Plus, judicial scrutiny would pack the muscle necessary to insure state cooperation. 

Would an equal education amendment have sufficient support to pass in the federal legislature? Would the required two thirds of the states ratify it? Probably not given the present economic emergency. But just raising the issue of a constitutional amendment focuses attention on the inequities. 

What would an Equal Education Amendment look like? It might read something like this. 


Section 1. Equality of Educational opportunity under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, sex, income or place of residence. 

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. 


Who would oppose such an amendment? In a nation where a proposed minimum wage of $15,000 a year was widely denounced in Congress as excessive and inflationary before it squeaked through, and where many are content to let their fellow citizens suffer financial ruin because of medical bills, there will be no scarcity of opponents. 

What would be the stated grounds of opposition? One would be that an equal education amendment establishes excessive federal control over what are properly state and local matters. But that concern seems bogus now that Republicans took the lead in the most massive federal infringement of state and local control of schooling in our history — No Child Left Behind. 

A far more potent source of opposition would come from those who benefit from the present inequality. Barring massive new spending to raise all boats, they would have to forfeit some of the advantage their children presently enjoy. The Catholic lobby might oppose the amendment as well, since parochial school kids would not benefit. 

The Central Role of the Federal Government

It is entirely possible to raise all educational boats to an equal resources level, but differences in state wealth means that this task necessarily falls to the Federal government. How likely is it that such massive federal funding will be forthcoming? Given present priorities and the election of Donald Trump, not likely. Besides, the cost of maintaining our present imperial stance in the world — well in excess of a trillion dollars to invade Iraq, for example — bleeds off the requisite resources. 

Make no mistake; the federal government commands the necessary resources to provide every child in America with equal educational opportunity. But to do so legislators and the White House would have to rearrange national priorities. We would, for example, have to invest far more in our children and far less ion the military-industrial complex. Of course that means the entire military-industrial complex would oppose it. We might also have to cut farm subsidies for agribusiness. We might even have to re-elevate taxes on corporations and the rich to Eisenhower era levels. Of course any and all of this would discomfort the powerful people who finance our politician’s elections. 

The Real Advantage

Given these realities and the likelihood of the Equal Education Amendment’s defeat, perhaps the real advantage of putting the amendment on the table is to force hands and reveal agendas. It puts a question out there that most politicians dearly want to dodge. Namely, what is more important to you, providing every American child with equal educational opportunity, or serving special interests? It’s high time that we ask that question and require an unavoidable answer. 

In the meantime, let’s at least be more honest. If President Trump were to address the nation’s school children, for instance, could he explain why the nation is not willing to give them an equal chance. That way the disadvantaged kids would at least know what they are up against. 


[1] “Cities Spending the Most and Least per Student.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gaps in Per Pupil Expenditure (PPE) Between the Highest- and Lowest-Spending Large School Districts in the Same State*, 2003-04 (Includes only districts with enrollments of 10,000 or more), Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Public Education Finances2004 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2006), table 17, National Center for Educational Statistics,

[4]Op. cit.