What is the purpose of the public school? Professor Justin Driver of the University of Chicago Law School tackles this question in his new book, The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, The Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind, a comprehensive survey of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence relating to public schools and America’s schoolchildren.
The answer to this question unfolds over some 400 pages that explore both the high points for student rights (Brown v. Board of Education, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, Plyler v. Doe) and so many of the low points (New Jersey v. TLO, Milliken v. Bradley, Ingraham v. Wright). Through this exploration, Driver finds that while judges and justices have generally concurred that schools are intended to teach students what it means to be a citizen, their conceptions of citizenship have differed dramatically. Some, like Justice Hugo Black in his dissent in Tinker, have focused on a “conception of citizenship [that] resembled the subject found on some elementary students’ report cards, which extols respect, deference, and obedience to school officials.” Others, like Judge Ilana Rovner, have argued that since, “Youth are often the vanguard of social change . . . To treat them as children in need of protection from controversy is contrary to the values of the First Amendment.”
Driver himself ultimately concludes that—perhaps more than anything else—public schools are responsible for creating “engaged, dynamic, and disputatious citizens” who understand that “the Constitution is . . . not . . . some abstract piece of parchment that a social studies teacher occasionally invokes in class but [is] a vital, meaningful document whose principles inform students’ lives every time they step within the schoolhouse gate.” This framing is on display throughout his insightful analysis in response to legal opinions, scholarly writing, and the general cultural framing of these important cases. As to why we should care at all, Driver argues that, “Students are invariably going to derive some lessons about justice (and injustice) from the treatment they and their classmates receive within the corridors of our nation’s public schools. The only real question is what the content of those lessons will be.”
In telling the story of constitutional rights and public education, Driver keeps the focus where it belongs: on students. He emphasizes the personal stories that led families to decide that litigation was their only option, and highlights the immense sacrifices that students and their parents made in order to fight for the role of the Constitution in schools. As an aspiring lawyer, I would have loved to see more about the role that lawyers themselves played (in crafting strategies, finding plaintiffs, etc.), but ultimately, I believe that Driver made the correct editorial choice. While lawyers have played outsized roles in much of the history of school-based litigation (as evidenced by the roles of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and others in school desegregation cases), this debate should remain centered on those who are most affected: students who will grow up to set the direction of our country. Their stories are too often overlooked, and The Schoolhouse Gate does them justice by centering their narratives.
Without making himself a key player in the narrative, Driver brings in enough of his voice and background to help readers understand the perspective that he brings to these issues. From challenging Supreme Court reasoning with the story of his own suspension from school to citing his family’s tough decisions when it came to his education, Driver reminds us that education, while critical to the foundation of our country, is also deeply personal. The decisions made by teachers, administrators, and the Courts leave lasting impacts, and cannot—should not—be downplayed by our desire to ignore the subtle lessons that students are picking up on every day.
While the book makes only passing references to our current historical moment, it is impossible to read without thinking about the direction in which the Supreme Court is heading. The Schoolhouse Gate points to the many arenas in which the Court has not issued a final ruling, such as transgender students’ use of restrooms at school, as well as to decisions in which the Court has issued rulings that ought to be revisited (such as Ingraham v. Wright, which refused to apply Eighth Amendment protections to prevent the use of corporal punishment in schools). Looking to our newly minted nine-person Court, it is hard to imagine that a day is coming in which we afford students more, not less, constitutional protections. Indeed, it seems more likely that decisions such as Plyler, which prevented schools from banning undocumented students, are the ones that could be on their way out. The damage that the Court is capable of doing to students cannot be overstated, as is made clear throughout this book.
As Driver shows throughout, all Americans have a vested interest in what happens in our public schools. It is for that reason that this book is a must read not just for civil rights lawyers and law students, but for all who are involved in educating our children. It is poignant (a small anecdote on a very special thank you that Judge Justice received following his decision in Plyler v. Doe brought a tear to my eye), sometimes funny (a footnote on Three’s Company brought a much-appreciated moment of levity at least to this reader), and always intellectually rigorous. In short, it is a powerful book that is needed now, as we grapple with the role and legitimacy of the Supreme Court.