Legislative Perspectives on the Purpose of School

Because the United States Constitution makes no mention of the purpose or function of schools, the responsibility for schooling and formal education is a matter delegated to each state.

Each of the 50 state constitutions vary in the degree they describe the role and purposes of schooling. Perhaps one of the most comprehensive views was put forth by John Adams, who penned the Massachusetts State Constitution in 1780. Massachusetts provides a particularly interesting example because it is the world's oldest written constitution still in use, and provides the first decree of compulsory public education in the United States. In it, Adams wrote pointedly and directly to the fundamental importance and purposes schools should play in post-colonial Massachusetts:

Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.

http://www.malegislature.gov/laws/constitution (Chapter V, Section II)

So, as early as 1780, Massachusetts had formally established a very broad and multifaceted scope for education that included:

  • Social Development (sincerity, good humor, generous sentiments among the people, etc.)

  • Cognitive and Academic Development (interests of literature and the sciences)

  • Civic Development (preservation of their rights and liberties; industry)

Since that time, individual states have developed educational aspirations that reflect the needs of their residents. For example, the Florida State Constitution articulates many common and unique elements related to the purpose of school. Rewritten in 2006, this document illustrates Florida’s desire to provide a safe environment for its children and emphasizing early childhood development and the importance of cognitive, social, and emotional development:

The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education and for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require… (b) Every four-year old child in Florida shall be provided by the State a high quality pre-kindergarten learning opportunity in the form of an early childhood development and education program which shall be voluntary, high quality, free, and delivered according to professionally accepted standards. An early childhood development and education program means an organized program designed to address and enhance each child's ability to make age appropriate progress in an appropriate range of settings in the development of language and cognitive capabilities and emotional, social, regulatory and moral capacities through education in basic skills and such other skills as the Legislature may determine to be appropriate. (Florida Legislature, 2010).