Voting Equality as an Analogue for Education Equality: A Conversation with Jay Mathews from the Washington Post

While you may not recognize his name, you likely know his work: Jay Mathews authored the book on which the film “Stand and Deliver” would later be based. Additionally, Jay has been employed by the Washington Post for over 40 years and has won several awards for his education writing.  Needless to say, Jay has a deep and rich understanding of American schooling.

Recently, after he took the time to read one of my blog posts, I began corresponding with Jay; I greatly admire his ability to synthesize the ongoing, sometimes disparate dialogue about education in this country into a coherent narrative.

However, in one of our recent exchanges, Jay wrote something that I found questionable.  I asked Jay, “Why do you believe that education is so cemented as a state’s rights issue?”  He responded, “Education [is] not a federal responsibility.  And I don’t think it has done us much harm.”

Respectfully, I would like to push back on the notion that the absence of education as a federal responsibility hasn’t done us any harm.

Like education, the framers of the Constitution also left the power to set suffrage requirements and voting qualifications to the states.  Yet because of injustice and inequality, the federal government had to step in at a certain point - primarily with amendments to the Constitution, but also with legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Is education any different?  Left to states and the democratic processes employed therein, inequality abounds.  One need only compare the amount of money spent in certain districts in poor communities in Maryland or California (compared to their wealthier counterparts with higher property tax bases) to see the inequality firsthand.  Much like the right to vote, don't we suffer when the federal government is restricted in their ability to step in, level out, and dare I say outlaw those practices (much like literacy tests and poll taxes) that create disparity in American education?

If voting equality is an appropriate analogue, relative to education equality, then I see it this way: Putting our hope in state-based and market-based education reforms is akin to hoping that Mississippi and Alabama would outlaw literacy tests or poll taxes without federal pressure and national support. 

Though I very much respect his work, I have to disagree with Jay’s views on this topic.  It seems clear that we have suffered much by leaving the states to set their own standards and funding schemes.  Doing so has been an open invitation to inequality.