"Common," "system," "uniform," and "efficient" as terms of art in the education articles of state constitutions: a philosophical foundation for the American common school

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Virginia Tech


One of the most important administrative problems in education today is how equitably to finance the school system of a state, since frequently the question of insufficient revenue and disparity between school divisions and states reflects a larger societal problem of commitment to public education. The proposal to restructure, if not refound the present educational system as a quasi~ public marketing entity using educational vouchers now challenges the time- honored common school ideal.

This study provides a philosophical rationale for the American common school to aid legislators, jurists, and policymakers in interpreting key terms in the educational provisions of state constitutions. It assumes that the school financing policies of a nation reflect the value choices of a people as well as their priorities in the allocation of resources.

The terms selected for analysis: "common," "system," "uniform," and "efficient," are pregnant with meaning in the context of education. Defined etymologically and philosophically, they are "terms of art" because they suggest ethical standards for a common school system. In the process of defining each term, the study examines the intellectual roots of the American common school, an institution its founders believed could unite the nation and ensure the common good. The present movement to privatize public systems, however, reflects a paradigm of laissez-faire individualism that encourages private self interest and a divisive pluralism in contrast with an older, more egalitarian tradition of classical republicanism which has shaped the common school ideal. The phrase "common good," associated with the public interest, is a rubric used to define "common" and other related root terms such as "commonality," "commonwealth," and "virtue." It defines "system" as an aspect of polity and suggests that the terms "efficient" and "uniform" have moral implications for school systems that have a public purpose of effecting a virtuous and enlightened citizenry for the preservation of a republic.

This multidisciplinary investigation emphasizes the duty of the state to educate in the republican, civic humanist tradition. It thus serves as a guide to policymakers required to make complex school finance decisions that will ensure equity and equality of educational opportunity for all citizens in every state throughout the commonwealth.