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The Struggle to Save Our Schools

How do we go about putting democracy back into public education?

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In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court identified America’s system of public education as “the very foundation of good citizenship.” An educated public is critical to a system that relies on popular elections, which is why Justice Felix Frankfurter referred to public school teachers as “the priests of our democracy.” Yet in recent decades, politicians and educators have downplayed this reality, viewing public schools primarily as places to equip students to become skilled workers. “A world-class education,” President Barack Obama argued in 2011, “is the single most important factor in determining not just whether our kids can compete for the best jobs but whether America can out-compete countries around the world.” Educators adopted the mantra that schools must enable students to be “career and college ready,” with little thought for preparing them to be good citizens. 

How do we go about putting democracy back into public education? Two new books from University of Chicago professors—one a legal scholar, the other a sociologist—offer important answers. The law professor Justin Driver traces the efforts of the Supreme Court to uphold the principles of the Constitution in the education system in his engaging and absorbing new book, The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind. “No civic task is more essential,” he writes, “than ensuring that the Constitution is viewed in public schools not as some abstract piece of parchment” but as “a vital, meaningful document whose principles inform students’ lives every time they step within the schoolhouse gate.” Yet in tackling issues from the use of corporal punishment to a student’s right to equal educational resources, the courts have fallen short.

Eve L. Ewing, like Driver, takes on big issues of education, race and democracy in her book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side. But Ewing, a sociologist in the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, a poet, and a former schoolteacher, takes a very different tack, focusing on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 proposal to close a large number of public schools, most of them in African American communities. Emanuel’s rationale was that the schools were underutilized and struggled academically. The proposal caused an uproar, including a lengthy hunger strike at one school. Ewing’s book asks a poignant question: “If the schools were so terrible, why did people fight for them so adamantly?”

Ewing makes a powerful case that the mayor and Chicago Public Schools officials failed to understand that the importance of a school couldn’t be reduced to test score results and utilization rates. Community members, she writes, had “a different understanding of what evidence should count in determining the value of a school.” Ewing and Driver share a commitment to the principles of equality, but they emphasize different routes toward that end, with Ewing making a close study of how a community works to uphold these values and Driver telling a history of the arguments and institutions that can bring change down from on high. Together, these two approaches provide paths to restoring public education as the fountainhead of our democracy.

For much of its history, the U.S. Supreme Court shied away from intervening in school affairs, reasoning, says Driver, that “it would be improper for the judiciary to reach into public schools, overturning educators’ independent decisions.” The Supreme Court should not be the nation’s school board, the justices said. 

Pantheon Books, 544 pp., $35.00

Yet by the 1950s and 1960s, the justices came to appreciate that only by vindicating the democratic rights of students could schools effectively educate pupils to be good citizens, and the Court issued a series of rulings on a range of cases. The First Amendment allowed students to wear black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War, for instance, because the Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school-house gate.” A student has had the right to refrain from saluting the American flag since West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette because to disregard this liberty would “strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” Likewise, when the Court upheld the due process rights of an expelled student to know the reason for his being disciplined in 1975, The Chicago Tribune asked, “Where is a better place than at school for young citizens to learn to expect justice?”

The most consequential of the Court’s rulings on education, however, is Brown v. Board of Education, to which Driver devotes his longest chapter. For Driver, this ruling demonstrates in a variety of ways how closely education is intertwined with democracy. Integrated schools promote democratic values because they affirm that in America, we are all political equals; they make demagogic attempts to scapegoat minorities less likely to be effective; and they promote educational achievement and attainment, which increase democratic participation rates. Segregated schools undermine each of these goals.

The 1954 decision striking down de jure racially segregated schools, writes Driver, “stands alone as the most revered judicial opinion of the twentieth century.” Yet its meaning has never been entirely clear: Some readers see it simply as an invocation not to treat students differently based on race; for others, it was meant as an effort to dismantle a racial caste system. The decision famously faced massive resistance after it was handed down and went largely unenforced for more than a decade. The biggest fear of its white opponents, Driver dryly notes, was that “integrated classrooms would lead to integrated bedrooms.” Over time, the decision also met resistance from parts of the black community, which claimed that integration was “based on the false notion that black children are unable to learn unless they are in the same setting as white children.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court finally became serious about enforcing Brown in a 1968 decision, when it called for the elimination of segregation “root and branch.” But just six years later, the Court pulled back when it overturned a lower court desegregation order that would have integrated the northern city of Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. The Court majority reasoned that the separate suburban districts were not implicated in the original wrongdoing, though critics said political considerations had crept into the Court’s jurisprudence. Skeptics suggested the Court was not guided by the law but by fear of white backlash against cross-district busing and the judges who ordered it.

As a result of the 1974 decision, many Northern city desegregation orders were restricted to urban areas. In Boston, the limited, city-based racial desegregation order received enormous pushback and was widely regarded as a failure. The order spawned white flight to the suburbs, leaving behind groups of working-class white and black students, who didn’t experience the achievement benefits associated with broader socioeconomic integration. Moreover, white working-class families seethed at the double standard under which wealthy white suburban liberals lectured them about the importance of integration but did not involve their own children in the enterprise.

In contrast, many Southern desegregation plans included both cities and suburbs because, in that region of the country, the two tend to lie within single county-wide school systems. In Charlotte, North Carolina, there was no easy escape hatch for white flight, because suburbs were part of the plan. And because more affluent suburban students were included, the plan brought about socioeconomic as well as racial integration. This was critical because research had long found, going back to the 1966 congressionally-authorized Coleman Report, that the “beneficial effect of a student body with a high proportion of white students comes not from racial composition per se but from the better educational background and higher educational aspirations that are, on average, found among whites.” The Charlotte plan produced strong achievement gains, and in 1984, when Ronald Reagan came to town and harshly denounced busing, his remarks “fell utterly flat and met only silence.”

America’s experiment with desegregation was short-lived, as the New York Times reporter Nikole-Hannah Jones has demonstrated in her writing on the state of today’s schools. In the 1990s, the William Rehnquist Court began releasing jurisdictions from desegregation orders. And in 2007, in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the John Roberts Court went further and struck down racial integration plans that had been voluntarily adopted by school boards in Louisville, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington. In order to promote school diversity, the plans treated students differently based on race, which Roberts saw as a violation of Brown. “Before Brown,” he wrote, “schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin. The school districts in these cases have not carried the heavy burden of demonstrating that we should allow this once again—even for very different reasons.” 

Driver, who clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer at the time of the Parents Involved case, quotes Breyer’s powerful response: “Segregation policies did not simply tell schoolchildren ‘where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin’; they perpetuated a caste system rooted in the institutions of slavery and 80 years of legalized subordination.” Breyer wrote that efforts to continue racial segregation are not “constitutionally indistinguishable from efforts to achieve racial integration.” Breyer was reaching back to the larger meaning of Brown: that separate schooling for America’s most vulnerable populations undermines the democratic purposes of public education. 

Driver goes further to point out that the rationale for using race is even stronger at the K-12 level than in higher education—where the Supreme Court has upheld racial preferences in admissions. The benefits of diversity in the K-12 classroom, Driver observes, apply “even more compellingly during the students’ most formative years of schooling.” Moreover, a white or Asian high school senior rejected for racial reasons from a selective college after years of hard work surely has a stronger claim than a five-year-old whose race is a factor in not being admitted to his or her parents’ preferred Kindergarten.

The New York Times denounced the Parents Involved decision with an editorial entitled, “Resegregation Now.” But, Driver says, the practical effect of the decision has been limited in some areas because a number of school districts, from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina, have shifted to socioeconomic status (such as eligibility for subsidized lunch) as a basis for integration. These plans provide successful “workarounds” to Parents Involved because it is perfectly legal to classify students by socioeconomic status, and because class-based integration produces a lot of racial diversity.

The socioeconomic plans are not merely a clever legal ploy by which to circumvent the Supreme Court. They are also consistent with the social science research finding that the economic status of classmates drives achievement more than race. Today, 100 school districts and charter school chains educating 4 million students use socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment. Among them is Charlotte, which adopted a plan in 2016 to admit an equal number of low, medium, and high socioeconomic status students to its magnet schools. (The plan, which I assisted Charlotte in creating, was adopted one day after Donald Trump’s election.) 

When it comes to the critical issue of private school vouchers, Driver is far less persuasive. A central plank in the Trump and Betsy DeVos agenda, vouchers have been found to increase racial and socioeconomic segregation in numerous societies where they have been tried, from Sweden to Chile to Denmark. Yet Driver endorses the idea, against the wisdom of his former boss, Justice Breyer, who noted that vouchers threaten to balkanize American society along religious lines. Driver argues that it is unfair to trap low-income students in failing schools and that vouchers offer those children a way out. Here, he may be reflecting on his own experience as a young student who, living in a poor neighborhood in Washington D.C., had the chance to attend a public school in an affluent area where, he says, “the educational outcomes were much brighter.”

But a system of public school choice—like the one Driver availed himself of—is crucially different from a voucher system. It answers the plea for better opportunities, without taking the dangerous step of outsourcing the teaching of democracy to private institutions.

Ewing pays closer attention to the importance of a school not just to individual students but also to a whole community, as a source of meaning and pride. In a book brimming with insights, she traces the long history of black struggle with Chicago officials who purposefully created an “invisible fence” to keep parts of the city—including the Bronzeville section on Chicago’s South side—cordoned off from the rest. The NAACP valiantly fought school segregation but, facing resistance from the powers that be, many black leaders eventually shifted their focus to community control of black schools, and despite enormous obstacles, a number of Bronzeville community members thrived. Over the years, the neighborhood produced Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, jazz musician Nat King Cole, and novelist Richard Wright.            

University of Chicago Press, 240 pp., $22.50

The school closings took that control away from the community again. Ewing cogently argues that the closings were particularly painful, because in African American communities they are “part of a broader pattern of disrespect for people of color.” Against the background of slavery, in which black families were routinely dispersed to different communities, she says, the division of school communities rang with an unfortunate familiarity. “I feel like I’m at a slave auction,” one black resident tells school officials, “begging you to keep my family together. Don’t take them and separate them.” One community member pleaded with school officials: “You are destroying a family for many children who don’t always have the easiest family situations at their homes.” 

One practical concern for Chicago students, Ewing notes, is the way in which new school feeder patterns can force students to traverse different gang territories. In 2009, for example, one student was beaten to death during a fight, which Ewing says, was “attributed to a student conflict after a school closure and consolidation.” To add insult to injury, many of the schools closed in Chicago were named after prominent African Americans. A school named for black suffragist Mary C. Terrell became ACE Technical Charter School, Sojourner Truth Elementary School became the Chicago International Charter School, and Ralph J. Bunche Elementary School became Providence Englewood Charter School. Ewing sharply points out the effect: “That’s how you get black history to go away.”

The closings might have made more sense if the new schools that students attended were clearly superior, but that was rarely the case. A 2009 study found that after an early round of school closures in Chicago, only 6 percent of students transferred to top performing schools. Almost half went to the lowest performing schools where their scores in math and reading on average declined. Finally, unlike in any other Illinois jurisdictions, the Chicago School Board is not elected by the public. (Members are appointed by the mayor). This unusual arrangement added to a sense of powerlessness.

Ewing’s stunning account of this recent history underlines the staggering challenge we face in creating the schools necessary to sustain our democracy. We have moved so far away from the concept of equal opportunity for disadvantaged African American students that parents are no longer just fighting for high-quality integrated schools, or even high-quality segregated schools. They are fighting for the right to preserve mediocre schools because what they are likely to be provided in the event of school closure is even worse. 

At a time when our democracy is under stress, Ewing and Driver outline two important paths for strengthening America’s commitment to democratic values. Both require schools to reinforce the lessons about democracy found in textbooks by doing something much harder: asking the adults to model those values. Ewing’s detailed on-the-ground reporting calls on leaders to give basic respect to vulnerable communities and give them a voice in important decisions. Driver goes even further, as he calls on schools to challenge the racial and economic inequality in the broader society. He has the audacity to contend that low-income, black, and brown children have an equal right to share space with more privileged students in a system of public education. Anything less would be undemocratic.