Legal Perspectives on the Purpose of School

An additional source of opinion on the purposes of American schooling has come from the judicial branch. Specifically, in the late 1980s, there were a series of landmark legal cases that helped to redefine the purposes and responsibilities of US schools. In 1989 (Rose v. Council for Better Education, 1989), the Kentucky State Supreme Court ordered the General Assembly to provide funding "sufficient to provide each child in Kentucky an adequate education" and to reform the property tax system. In defining what constitutes an adequate public education, the court enumerated seven learning goals that have been widely cited as precedent and since adopted by numerous other states, including Massachusetts (e.g., McDuffy v. Secretary, 1993). The seven distinct components of education include the development of:

  1. Sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable a student to function in a complex and readily changing civilization;

  2. Sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable students to make informed choices;

  3. Sufficient understanding of government processes to enable the student to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation;

  4. Sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness;

  5. Sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage;

  6. Sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and

  7. Sufficient level of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.

In recognizing the many goals of American public education, the supreme courts of Kentucky and many other states have echoed the sentiment that public schooling is not intended to be an exclusively academic or cognitive experience for students. Indeed, the Kentucky and Massachusetts decisions make it clear that cognitive outcomes are only one among many aims of schooling. There is no language in these decisions that implies cognitive skills should receive the primary emphasis over and above civic, emotional, and vocational purposes.


McDuffy v. Secretary, 1993, 415 Mass. 545.

Rose v. Council for Better Education (1989). 790 S.W.2d 186