A year ago, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer ruled that Pennsylvania violates its constitutional obligation to create a “thorough and efficient” system of school funding. In response, legislative leaders and Governor Shapiro have charged the Basic Education Funding Commission with providing a blueprint for General Assembly action that would meet our constitutional obligation.
As the Basic Education Funding Commission moves from fact-finding to the decision-making phase of its work, this is a good time to recognize that we all have a stake in its deliberations. The best way to do that is to review the reasons that Pennsylvania’s Constitution has an education provision at all. Why, in other words, did those who wrote our Constitution believe that K-12 education is so important?
The ultimate source of the provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution that underlies Judge Jubelirer’s decision are the ideas of great statesmen of the past who recognized that the health of our democracy and economy ultimately rests on a “thorough and efficient” system of K-12 education. And the leader in the effort to create a public school system in Pennsylvania was Thaddeus Stevens. Before he was called the “great liberator,” for authoring constitutional amendments ending slavery as a member of the US House of Representatives, Thaddeus Stevens was known as the “great educator.” As a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives he was a champion of public education. His famous 1835 speech opposing repeal of the common school law he had previous help create sets out the fundamental reasons that K-12 education is so important. Stevens said, “If an elective republic is to endure for any great length of time every elector must have sufficient information, not only to accumulate wealth and take care of his pecuniary concerns, but to direct wisely the Legislature, the Ambassadors, and the Executive of the nation.” The themes of democracy and prosperity are found elsewhere in his speech and in the public statements of those who added the education clause to the Pennsylvania Constitution in 1874 and revised it in 1968.
If the importance of K-12 education was just based on 19th-century ideas, we might pause at investing more state funds in our schools. However, the educational ideals of Stevens and the founders of our Constitution are supported by two decades of research showing that better K-12 education contributes to the vigor of both our democracy and economy.
A recent comprehensive report that summarizes a great deal of research shows that quality civic education leads to greater knowledge about the way our democracy works, stronger skills in critical thinking and collaborative action, greater respect for democratic norms and the rights of others, a greater sense of trust in one another and our political system, and higher rates of participation in public life.
The evidence for the positive impact of good public education on our economy is even broader.
Cross-national comparisons show that both additional years of schooling and higher quality schooling, as measured by standardized tests, leads to a higher productivity workforce and thus higher per capita gross domestic product. The increase in education levels since the 19th century has been estimated to account for between one-fifth and one-third of economic growth in the United States.
Cross-state research confirms these findings. High-wage, and thus high-prosperity, states are those with a well-educated workforce. And school achievement levels are highly correlated—and are likely the cause of—faster economic growth in the states.
Sadly, partly because of our failure to adequately fund K-12 education (but also because we underfund workforce training and higher education), Pennsylvania falls at about the middle of the 50 states in GDP per capita. This is a sad decline from our early 20th century position as one of the economic engines, not just of the United States but the world. But new investment in K-12 education could reverse this decline. The best evidence we have suggests that if academic achievement in Pennsylvania matched that of the highest-ranked state in the country, Minnesota, in two generations our state’s GDP per capita would be roughly 225% higherthan it would be with our current levels of academic achievement.
The great leaders who founded our public education system were prescient. The path they set us on is largely responsible for our preserving our democracy and enhancing our prosperity and democracy. We who reaped the benefits of their decisions must emulate them now. We must ensure that the education we provide our children and grandchildren protects our democracy and creates an economy even more prosperous than today.