The Right to a Free Public Education in Iowa & Alabama

Quite some time ago, when I was employed by the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, I noticed that the Iowa Constitution did not provide a right to a free public education to the children of Iowa.  I decided to conduct some research and see how many other states lacked such a constitutional provision.

I spent a lot of my free time at the Drake Law Library and the Iowa State Capitol Law Library going through various state code books and delving into all 50 states’ constitutions.  This was before Westlaw and Google law.  I recorded the constitutional provisions of all 49 other states that had some reference to free public education in their respective constitutions.  Forty-eight of those states provided a constitutional guarantee.  Alabama and Iowa did not.  Alabama did have language about education.  Article XIV, Section 256, of the Alabama Constitution reads as follows:

Duty of legislature to establish and maintain public school system; apportionment of public school fund; separate schools for white and colored children.

The legislature shall establish, organize, and maintain a liberal system of public schools throughout the state for the benefit of the children thereof between the ages of seven and twenty-one years. The public school fund shall be apportioned to the several counties in proportion to the number of school children of school age therein, and shall be so apportioned to the schools in the districts or townships in the counties as to provide, as nearly as practicable, school terms of equal duration in such school districts or townships. Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.

As you can see, Alabama had language about education in its constitution, but I considered the lack of any language in Iowa’s as a step above Alabama’s.  I have had many people tell me that Iowa does indeed have educational language in its constitution.  However, I have won all arguments after pointing out that Article IX of Iowa’s Constitution, “Education and School Lands”, was primarily repealed in 1864.  Our federal constitution does not provide a guaranteed right to a free public education, but in the United States Supreme Court case of Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982), a majority on the Court held that “the Constitution guarantees all children, regardless of immigration status, equal access to a basic public education.”

My spare time research was transformed to a white paper on the lack of a provision in the Iowa Constitution that provided for a tuition-free public education for Iowa children.  The result of my research led to the introduction of Senate Joint Resolution 2003, a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Iowa relating to the right of children to free public education through the secondary level, in 1998.  The co-sponsors were Senators Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs), Mary Neuhauser (D-Iowa City), and Tom Vilsack (D-Mount Pleasant).

This November, citizens of Alabama are going to the polls to vote on Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment to remove the discriminatory language of its constitution allowing segregation of schools.  A similar effort failed in 2004.  If Alabamans can move into the 21st Century, perhaps it’s time for Iowans to do that same and proceed to provide a free public education to all Iowa children.

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One Response to The Right to a Free Public Education in Iowa & Alabama

  1. Jerry says:

    So we are the only state without a free education? I found your post when searching for the law on school fees. My school wants every child to have a computer, but also wants $40 for insurance on the computer. That could be too much for some families who may be happier to just have the old textbook approach.

    If schools prefer to substitute computers for books, the school should pay the insurance.

    BTW, my searches found hardly any Iowa discussion of school fees. You and Iowa Legal Aid stand alone in addressing this topic.

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