“It is the failure of the present social order to guarantee rights that is at issue…”
“Was there ever a time in the history of public education that the guaranteed right of each member was the driving force?”
The short answer is no, but it is an unsatisfactory answer because it does not deal with the meat of the question.
Rights exist. Consciousness of their existence and the ability, objectively, of a society to meet or guarantee those rights, varies across historical time and space. We could say that the only reason we are even speaking of rights is because we are conscious of our needs, but realize they are not met. If rights were realized, we would not be having this discussion…the only reason we have the conception is because of the gulf between the reality that they exist and could be met, while society has yet to meet them.
The content of rights varies with historical epoch and culture, which is not to say it is relative. High school and even college are rights now because that level of education is what is required for full participation and to be a responsible member of society. This makes no sense for the Iroquois of the 18th century, or a colonial settlement.
The ability of the present society to provide all members with a high school education is not in question. Yet, this is not happening. This does not mean that rights don’t exist, but that society has yet to develop – the demand that education is a right is a demand that helps push the society to improve!
Here’s a thought experiment that helps with rights. Take a spider plant (I love those because anyone can maintain them, they have lots of babies, and are generally cool looking). If the spider plant does not get enough water, it will die. Not getting enough water does not change the fact that the spider plant needs the water. Its need for the water is a feature of its being. The need for education is a feature of our being. The level and character of the education needed depends on the level of development of the society, which of course includes the consciousness of its members; it is also always changing.
The more folks claim education as a right, the more conscious they are of it as a need or requirement for living. African Americans, for example, have contributed greatly to this struggle by making this claim to education (note the idea of “equal educational opportunity” is a poorly formulated version of education is a right) central to the fight for rights in general.