This week’s celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. coincides with the second week of the state legislative session. That’s an apt coincidence.
Because the question legislators are facing – how to make sure that every child has the opportunity of an education – is one that Dr. King would have deemed worthy of considerable thought.
Last January, the State Supreme Court told the Legislature to make budget choices that fulfill Article IX, Section 1 of the State Constitution – which requires that “ample provision” be made for our children’s learning.
Our Constitution sets forth this mandate, the court wrote, so that every child can “succeed as active citizens in contemporary society.”
That goal does not hinge entirely upon what happens in school. A child’s success arises out of a mix of factors – whether she is growing up free of hunger, can get the health care she needs, and has spent her earliest years stacking up the building blocks of success.
Our priorities this session underpin our state’s Constitutional obligation to every child’s educational opportunity.
Last summer, a 50 percent cut to State Food Assistance put nearly 14,000 children at risk of hunger. Hunger doesn’t wait outside while a child is in class; it saps the school day of learning potential.
Kids learn well when they feel well. The most common childhood illness is dental disease, yet with timely, cost-effective treatment, it’s almost entirely preventable. Oral health problems are a major cause of school absences that disrupt learning. And as long as they continue to go untreated, they’re a major cause of pain and suffering. Children in pain will find it hard to focus in class.
Pre-kindergarten and other quality birth-to-5 programs are highly effective methods of supplying the opportunity our Constitution intended. The best way to ensure a basic education is to prepare children to make the most of a basic education. We can do that, through access to high-quality early learning.
The Court, in its ruling, drew a clear distinction between our K-12 infrastructure and the ample provision that is Constitutionally required for our children’s success. Even when fully funded, our schools alone don’t offer what children need to thrive. They’re not designed to. Nutritious food, health care, early learning: these work alongside the public education system to secure the success of our children as “active citizens in contemporary society.”
In his own time, Dr. King knew that the full participation of our children and families in American life rested on not only dismantling the racist barriers to schools, jobs, or housing. The integration of these institutions was necessary but insufficient to fulfilling our national purpose of liberty and equality. He asked, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't have enough money to buy a hamburger? What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school, when he doesn't earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?”
This session, a careful consideration of our Constitutional obligation will engender a similar question: What does it profit our children to attend well-funded schools, when they lack the cognitive, nutritional or health precursors to success?