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The Constitutional Common School

Author(s): Molly Townes O'Brien

This paper turns to historical evidence as a beginning point for understanding the constitutional vision and values of the "thorough and efficient system of common schools" mandated by Article VI, Section 2 of the Ohio Constitution. First, it traces the early development of public schooling in America and the complex relationship between public education and religion. The common school, as envisioned by the Ohio crusaders for its establishment, would bring diverse peoples together to create a common sense of citizenship. It would provide for citizen equality, and social and economic mobility; and it would safeguard liberty by developing a polity capable of self-government. The common school vision competed, however, with the existing reality of schools that were tuition-based, locally governed, diverse and sectarian.

Prior to 1851, the conflict over competing visions of schooling - one embraced primarily by protestant school crusaders, the other embraced by the Catholic Church - had escalated into violent conflict in New York City and Boston. In Ohio, conflict relating to the nature of public education, and, more specifically, the use of public money for sectarian schools had not become violent, but had been vigorously debated since 1789. The inclusion of the provision for a "thorough and efficient system of common schools" in the Constitution of 1851 represented a victory for the advocates of a non-sectarian, state-operated system of schools that would encourage civic participation and avoid religious indoctrination.

Next, the paper addresses efforts made to revise the state's educational provisions through constitutional amendments in 1874 and again in 1912. In considering and rejecting various amendments to Article VI, Section 2, the delegates to these conventions reinforced and redefined the non-sectarian ethos of public education. They also added new provisions to centralize authority for the efficient administration of education and to ensure state oversight over a single system of schools.

Finally, the authors attempt to place the constitutional "common school ideal" in the context of contemporary educational debates. Advocates for school choice have argued that both religious and private schools attend to the values of equality and civic participation while allowing for diversity in values, religious views and educational approaches. The authors of this paper, however, suggest that the ethos or constitutional vision of the common school is at odds with expanding programs that support private and religious school choice.

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Research theme: Criminal Law, Human Rights Law and Policy, Law and Social Justice, Legal Education

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