The schoolroom is the first opportunity most citizens have to experience the power of government…. Through it passes every citizen and public official, from schoolteachers to policemen and prison guards. The values they learn there, they take with them in life.
— U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, quoted in Justin Driver’s The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind
Lessons in liberty
Imagine your household is a very small country, where the adults govern and the children are governed. To clarify the rules, you decide to draft a constitution. How do you allocate power between governors and governed? Is there a bill of rights? Are the kids entitled to notice and hearing, freedom from cruel or unusual punishments, and privacy? Can they speak their minds or remain silent if they wish?
In their governing documents, a single neighborhood of these family “nations” would probably come up with a wide spectrum of core principles, from authoritarian to free-range parenting styles. On certain “global” issues where households coordinate, some of their value systems about how to govern — raise — children may turn out to be incompatible, even in relatively homogenous communities.
Public educators understand this challenge all too well. Late last year, school administrators in West Point, Virginia — where fewer than 4,000 people live — told a teacher that he had to use the preferred pronouns of a transgender student in ninth grade. When the teacher said he wouldn’t do that because it was inconsistent with his religious beliefs, the school board fired him for insubordination.
It was not a popular decision. Students walked out of school, local churches organized in support of the teacher, and national groups flooded administrators with criticism. But board members also received letters of gratitude for protecting marginalized students and respecting their dignity.
Adults haven’t historically been inclined to recognize children’s prerogative to challenge authorities, particularly at school. But in the last century, federal courts have haltingly, reluctantly acknowledged that students don’t “shed their constitutional rights … at the schoolhouse gate,” as the U.S. Supreme Court once put it. The notion that public education implicates fundamental rights led to what may be the Court’s best-known opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, which held that schools officially segregated by race are unconstitutional.
In an ambitious new book, The Schoolhouse Gate, University of Chicago law professor Justin Driver claims that, despite the hesitance of the Court’s foray into this area, public schools are “the single most significant site of constitutional interpretation within the nation’s history.” Over the past century, students have sued their schools for censoring and punishing political ideas, selectively promoting religious beliefs, imposing arbitrary suspensions and corporal punishment, discriminating against marginalized students, conducting unreasonable searches and seizures, and coercing incriminating statements to police. But even with a few landmark cases vindicating student rights, Driver argues that the Court has too eagerly abdicated its responsibility to defend students from authoritarian practices, instead deferring such questions to the discretion of local officials.
Driver’s comprehensive account of how the Court has waffled on student rights challenges all of us to consider what a healthy juxtaposition of liberty and power looks like. When is it legitimate for one person to use her power to curtail another person’s liberty? It’s a question intimately familiar to most of us who’ve raised children. Indeed, the fundamental dilemmas the Court has wrestled with in education cases are often just scaled-up versions of what household “governors” navigate every day: How do you teach your kids to follow and become good leaders but also to oppose bad ones? How do you raise citizens who grow up to value both independent thought and communal interests?
These are difficult questions. Why should the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court determine the answers for all of us? The freedom to raise our children as we think best is itself a fundamental right, and generally we want the federal government to stay out of it — that is, unless it’s our own kids on the losing side of a local power struggle.