Just over 160 years ago the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1850-1851 faced a serious question regarding the public common school system. Should the convention adopt a provision to require the legislature to develop and maintain a high quality common school system or leave the prospect of public education to the sole discretion of the legislature? After prolonged and vigorous debate, the Convention approved the provision that requires the General Assembly to secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools.
The thorough and efficient standard was adopted to protect school children from substandard or non-existent educational programming. It gave children an entitlement to high quality educational opportunities and assigned the state the solemn responsibility to guarantee such entitlement.
Notwithstanding the thorough and efficient standard, legislatures throughout the decades have been reluctant to enact provisions for high quality educational opportunities and the requisite funding to meet the standard. However, without that constitutional standard, there is no pressure on state officials to ensure high quality educational opportunities for all.
The 130th General Assembly enacted legislation to establish the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission (OCMC) to make proposals to update and modernize the Constitution. In an era in which high quality educational opportunities for all should be the highest of priorities, it is incomprehensible and unconscionable that a member on the Commission would dare suggest the removal of this time-honored standard. But that happened.
Chad Readler, the chair of the Education, Public Institutions & Miscellaneous and Local Government Committee, of the OCMC, made that very proposal during the April 10 Committee meeting. Possibly, Mr. Readler is unaware of the dire consequences of such action. Others on the Commission may likewise not realize the far reaching potential of harm to public education and Ohio citizens.
Rather than diminishing state responsibility for public education and eliminating the entitlement of students to high quality educational opportunities, the OCMC should propose to strengthen both the state’s responsibility for public education and the entitlement of all students to high quality educational opportunities.
The goal of all Ohioans should be to guarantee excellence in public education for each and every school-age child. The current American political, economic, social, technological and cultural environment, in the context of global political and economic circumstances, demands the availability of world-class educational opportunities for all. Every tax-supported educational endeavor must be an exemplary, world-class education program that is transparent and totally accountable to the public.
The constitutional language must hold the state accountable for achieving the goal of high quality for all. The thorough and efficient standard in the Constitution is peerless and must be retained at all costs. Any change in constitutional policy for the system of public common schools should provide enhancements, such as a further definition of the education elements that match the thorough and efficient standard and the designation of public education as a fundamental right.
Public engagement and advocacy to retain thorough and efficient in the Ohio Constitution is, in reality, the battle to retain a viable democracy. At the core, this is a clash between those who believe in an aristocracy of a few and an aristocracy of all. It is a contest between democracy and oligarchy.
It is a battle to retain a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is a fight to retain the basic rights of all citizens.
Responsibility for and entitlement of education was determined early in the history of the United States. Statesmen like Thomas Jefferson and educators like Horace Mann understood and worked diligently to establish appropriate educational programs for all. They preached the nexus between education and democracy, and that government must secure the entitlement of high quality education for all children. Jefferson stated that if a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never shall be. Mann declared that children are as entitled to education as they are to the air they breathe and that society owed high quality education to all the children of all the people.
The delegates to the 1850-1851 Constitutional Convention caught a vision of what Ohio could become and established an education policy that would allow Ohio to become a great social and economic body politic. They, after vigorous and intense debate, reached consensus that requiring the General Assembly to secure a thorough and efficient system of common school was necessary to secure the future of the state’s citizens.
The intent of the delegates was to require the legislature to provide for high quality public education. Delegate Stidger, a member of the standing committee on education, stated, on June 5, 1850, “If we should leave everything to the Legislature, why not adjourn this Convention sine die, at once.” (1 Debates page 693)
Regarding the need for a constitutional provision for public education, Delegate McCormick stated, “Gentlemen of the Convention seem to be unwilling to fix any feature of a system of public education in the constitution. They desire to leave everything to be fixed by the General Assembly. But let us look at past legislation done upon this subject. The present constitution imposes upon the Legislature the duty of establishing a system of public education; and in forty-eight years it has succeeded in building up a plan of benevolence, which gives the amount of seventy-five cents per annum, for school purposes, to each child in the state.” (2 Debates pages 15 and 16)
At another point in the Convention, Delegate McCormick said, “It has been said, that we ought to trust the management of this interest to the General Assembly. But now, for forty-eight years the General Assembly has been entrusted with this matter. Under the old Constitution it is provided that public schools and the cause of education shall be forever encouraged; and, under this constitutional provision, we have trusted the General Assembly for forty-eight years; and we may trust them for forty-eight years longer, without any good result. We have never yet had a law passed upon the subject which has not squandered the public school funds. Our acts of Assembly upon this subject have been either wasteful or impracticable,–like the common school law of the session before last, which has proved utterly impracticable throughout the whole of the military district. Our system of common schools, instead of improving in legislative hands, has been degenerating; and I think it is time that we should take the thing in hands ourselves. Either let us establish and carry out an efficient system of common school education or abandon the thing entirely to the virtue and intelligence of the people.” (2 Debates page 702)
The delegates opted for a high quality system. Delegate Archbold spoke to the need for a system as perfect as could be devised. (2 Debates page 697)
It is clear that the delegates to the 1850-1851 Constitutional Convention assigned the state of Ohio the responsibility to guarantee a high quality education via the public common school system.
Some have suggested that the words thorough and efficient need to be changed to more contemporary terms. The meaning of thorough and efficient is the same as when chosen to set the standard for the common school system in the Constitution.
For purposes of this discussion, the dictionary definition of the words “thorough” and “efficient” is instructive. The 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language published by S. Converse, defined thorough as: “literally, passing through or to the end; hence, complete; perfect.” Therefore, thorough, as it modifies the common school system means that the system shall be complete in all respects and marked by full detail. The system must be exhaustive and provide for full mastery.
The 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language defined efficient as: “causing effects; producing; that causes any thing to be what is is. The efficient cause is that which produces; the final cause is that which it is produced.” Hence, efficient, as it modifies the common school system, means that the system shall be effective in that it produces results. Therefore it is the state’s responsibility to determine the educational opportunities that will be available to students and the outcomes that are expected of students and school districts.
Current dictionaries provide essentially the same definition. Thus, there is no reason to substitute different words. Substituting different words for “thorough and efficient” is a solution in search of a problem. There is no problem with the word “thorough”; nor is there a problem with the word “efficient”. And there is no problem with the “thorough and efficient” education standard. Keep it and expand the concept to require the state to guarantee all Ohio students the fundamental right to high quality educational opportunities via the public common school system.
William L. Phillis is the executive director for the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding