I'm doing a class later this week on equity in education funding in Massachusetts and starting, as I always do, with the Massachusetts state constitution. I always comment that our constitution has the guarantee to public education in the original document, which is unusual, but I wasn't sure how unusual, or how other states handled it, so I did a bit of poking around.
Well, look what I found: a document of all the state constitutional language on education! It's one of the backups for the consideration of public education that was part of the Pennsylvania Bar Association's Constitutional Review Commission, back in 2010.
And, as they say, good writers borrow; great writers steal*, and John Adams wrote some good stuff! The Massachusetts Constitution was adopted in 1780, with the language Adams wrote:
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...Not entirely a surprise that it would influence Maine, adopted 1820, as Maine was first part of Massachusetts:
A general diffusion of the advantages of education being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people; to promote this important object, the Legislature are authorized, and it shall be their duty to require, the several towns to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the support and maintenance of public schools...And New Hampshire probably copied directly (1784):
Knowledge and learning, generally diffused through a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government; and spreading the opportunities and advantages of education through the various parts of the country, being highly conducive to promote this end; it shall be the duty of the legislators and magistrates, in all future periods of this government, to cherish the interest of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries and public schools...
Here's Indiana, though (adopted 1850):
Knowledge and learning, general diffused throughout a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government; it should be the duty of the General Assembly to encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual scientific, and agricultural improvement; and provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall without charge, and equally open to all.Or Texas (1876):
A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.Minnesota adds "intelligence" (1858):
The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.As does Missouri (1874):
A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the general assembly shall establish and maintain free public schools for the gratuitous instruction of all persons in this state within ages not in excess of twenty-one years as prescribed by law.As does California (adopted 1880):
A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement.I could go on--North Carolina adds "religion, morality" and North Dakota adds "patriotism, integrity" for example--but there is a very clear purpose for public education in quite a number of the state constitutions. And it isn't for economic development or college and career readiness or any number of other things.
It's, as Adams said, for "the preservation of their rights and liberties."
*You may know it from Aaron Sorkin by way of Sam Seaborn; it gets ascribed to Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, but the closest anyone can find is in fact T.S. Eliot, with a precursor by W.H. Davenport Adams. Which either proves or disproves the point.