Can the courts save civics education?

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Michael Rebell joins us this week to discuss how the courts can and should address the civic empowerment gap in the United States and create better civics education for everyone.

Recent elections and the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol insurrection have underscored worrisome trends in the present state of our democracy: the extreme polarization of the electorate, the dismissal of people with opposing views, and the widespread acceptance and circulation of one-sided and factually erroneous information. Only a small proportion of those who are eligible actually vote, and a declining number of citizens actively participate in local community activities.

In Flunking Democracy, Rebell makes the case that this is not a recent problem, but rather that for generations now, America’s schools have systematically failed to prepare students to be capable citizens. In the book and in this interview, he specific recommendations for how the courts can and should address this deficiency. He also talks about his efforts to make those ideas a reality — including petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court later this year.

Rebell is Professor of Law and Educational Practice and Executive Director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College.

Additional Information

Cook v. McKee – the case Rebell and his colleagues are taking to the U.S. Supreme court

Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University

Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation

Related Episodes

Public schools, not government schools

Citizenship, patriotism, and democracy in the classroom

Episode Transcript

Michael Berkman
From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University. I’m Michael Berkman.

Chris Beem
I’m Chris Beem.

Jenna Spinelle
I’m Jenna Spinelle and welcome to Democracy Works. This week, we are talking with Michael Rebell who is the Executive Director of the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College and author of flunking democracy, schools, courts and civic participation. This book, frankly, came out a couple of years ago, back when we first started this show, and it’s been on our shelf for a while, but really, I think is perhaps more relevant now than when it first came out.

Michael Berkman
Yeah, Jenna, I couldn’t agree with you more, I think that Rebell’s book really gets an orthogonal kind of way really gets right at the heart of a lot of what’s going on with contemporary debates about what kids should be learning about controversial topics are topics that are posed as controversial, such as our racial past, and the legacy of slavery, and then other areas as well around sexuality.

Chris Beem
Well, and all of that is taking place within or around or simultaneous to the argument that he wants to make, or the question that he wants to raise, which is, what are the prerequisites that are required for someone to assume democratic citizenship? What do you need to know what skills need to have? And can we? Or should we be looking to the schools to help people develop those skills?

Michael Berkman
Right, because Rebell, really, Chris seems to me comes very clearly from the position that we are in somewhat of a crisis in terms of civic knowledge and civic participation, that there is a real Civic Empowerment gap that he refers to where this is worse for kids coming from schools with less resources, and often minority majority schools. And he very clearly sees this.

Chris Beem
That’s right. And and I think we should get to that historical argument or, you know, historical legacy that he’s drawing from. But I just wanted to say that, I think he would go farther than you just did, he would say that the condition of our society of our democracy with respect to our inability to talk to each other, the failure of civil argument, polarization, enmity, all of that, he would argue, rests on the fact that we do not do civic education.

Michael Berkman
Chris, if I could just set this up a little bit. There is no right to education in the federal constitution. Education is not mentioned that we know rights can be found that are not explicit. But there has been no found right to education in the federal constitution. However, education is very clearly both in the state constitutions. And without going too much into it, although he does a wonderful job. It was in the minds of many of the framers, when they were constructing the federal government as well that schools had a responsibility. If I could put this succinctly schools had a responsibility to produce good democratic citizens. And it is stated quite clearly in a variety of languages, in a variety of terminology, I should say, within many, many of the state constitutions.

Chris Beem
I think that’s right. I mean, the founders were, in general, very nervous about extending the franchise. And they felt like one of the most fundamental ways in which they could help ensure that that franchise that sovereignty would be used wisely, was by making a kind of universal educational opportunity.

Michael Berkman
And it was actually fairly prominent part of public education in its earlier years, but there have been developments that have made it more and more marginal, to most students public school experience. Yeah, you know, for example, and this is parents, I don’t think think of schools that way neoliberalism. We think of schools now as preparation for jobs. And this is too bad, because if you think about them only in terms of preparation for jobs, which of course schools do need to do, then it can distract from these other responsibilities. And I think really critical to that is not only sort of the shift in thinking about schools as places to train people for jobs and for the modern economy. But when No Child Left Behind came pi, and sort of dropped social studies as a testable field, then you’re going to see all kinds of shifts and resources, and I don’t think it was good for the teaching of civic education.

Chris Beem
I completely agree about the idea that schools should be preparing people for competition in the workforce. But the point of No Child Left Behind is not that exactly. It’s about the continued failure of so many The inner city schools that serve minority students and their scores left their students unable to compete. And so, you know, you set up the system where why right, we’re going to put up federal controls or federal standards that you’re going to have to meet,

Michael Berkman
You know, within a school, it means that the focus is going to be on the testable subjects, right. So that’s where you’re going to have your best teachers. That’s where your resources are going to be. That’s where students are going to spend their time because as you noted, there’s money tied to this. So the scores have to be high

Chris Beem
Principles, keeping their job.

Michael Berkman

Yeah, but No Child Left Behind is only I think, part of the story, because the introduction of culture wars into the schools, as we’re seeing right now, and I really exaggerated and kind of heightened way is also highly problematic, because teaching civics education, teaching people how to think which I think we’ll talk about after the interview, can be controversial. And it can make people uncomfortable. And we actually even see laws now being passed that students should never be uncomfortable with the things that they’re learning.

Chris Beem
Yeah, no, I think that’s right. And I was actually kind of like making a list while you were talking. And so we have on the one hand, Dr. Rebell, who is slaving in the salt mines. And on the other hand, we have people pushing for equity, who are not concerned with civics, people who are focused on competition and a neoliberal world where it’s all about getting good job, who don’t care about civics. And then there’s polarized populace that distrust elites, and is very concerned about this whole effort at civics being a subterfuge to you know, move us all into socialism. So that’s all on the why we are in this point, and how hard it is going to be to get past this point.

Michael Berkman
So I think equity is actually kind of central to this, as is adequacy, which was the other grounds on which a lot of these state court battles were fought, saying that students because of their constitutions are required not only to an equitable education as somebody in another district, but an adequate education. And then the question comes up, as I’m sure rebel will talk about certainly did in the book, that adequacy can be tied to civic empowerment, too, because if you can’t teach them how to be good citizens, then you’re not doing an adequate job.

Jenna Spinelle
So we actually pick up the interview right with the notion of the Civic Empowerment gap, and then where the courts fit into all this picture. So let’s go now to the interview with Michael Rebell.

Jenna Spinelle
Michael Rebell, welcome to Democracy Works. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Michael Rebell
My pleasure, Jenna.

Jenna Spinelle
Civics education relates to so many things that we’ve talked about on this this podcast over the years and especially recently, things like trusting institutions, equity and inclusion, democratic participation. And in your book flunking democracy, you wrap a lot of those things up in the notion of the Civic Empowerment gap. Can you start off by telling us what that is and how it’s playing out today?

Michael Rebell
The basic thesis of my book is that our schools have been flunking democracy for the last 50 or 60 years, because of the lack of attention that’s been given to civic preparation for kids. Back in the 50s. And 60s, civic education was taken very seriously many states would offer students have two or three courses in this area. Now, if there’s one course that’s a lot, but it’s more than courses, to really be well prepared for the challenges of citizenship in the 21st century. Students need knowledge, they need civic knowledge, but they need particular skills and areas like media literacy. They need civic experiences to understand how the government works. And they really need to understand democratic values. And we fallen short, in all those areas for a variety of reasons that I do go into in the book.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, let’s talk about some of those. I’ll tell us a little bit about how we got from the place of the, you know, 50s and 60s to where we are today.

Michael Rebell
Well, quite frankly, I think it began with the opposition to the Vietnam War and the skepticism about governmental institutions that began in those days. But it’s been a lot more than that a lot has happened in the last 60 or so years. Some of it has to do with changes in educational policy. The fact that there’s been a great emphasis on basic skills, reading and math, and especially with the No Child Left Behind where schools were actually rated on standardized test scores in areas like reading math, to some extent science, but not social studies. And as a result, the statistics show that almost half of the school districts in the country have substantially cut down on the teaching of social studies and civics. So matter of fact, less than 10% of teacher time in elementary school is devoted to the area of social studies. So these these are major problems. But we’ve also had challenges from changes in our society, changes in technology, things like the internet, social media, which presents a lot of possibilities for young people. But as you know, it also presents a lot of problems. And kids need to be well educated in media literacy, they have to know how to use the internet and social media properly, they have to know how to distinguish accurate from inaccurate information. And the schools have not kept up with keeping this kind of thing. The problems gotten even worse in the last few years with the polarization of society. And I sometimes say to people, this is the worst of times for teaching civic education. Because the country is so polarized, we have all this controversy. And people don’t know what teachers don’t know, school boards very often just don’t know what direction to go into it with the charged atmosphere that young people are growing up in. But it’s also more important than ever, precisely for that reason. And the researchers, the practitioners who are really delved into this area, they have come up with what I think a very effective ways of dealing with the challenges in our current environment. And really, what we’re trying to do is promote what I call good civics and press upon people how important it is that the schools do their job, right, because our democracy is in peril. And teaching young people to understand their responsibility as citizens and their possibilities as citizens is what’s really needed.

Jenna Spinelle
And you argue that it really has to be an outside force or an outside power that needs to change the priorities of schools, as you said, there’s a lot of sort of internal conflict among teachers and school boards and those types of things. And you argue that the courts are really the place to look for that change. Tell us more about that in your why you think the courts are really the ones who move things forward here.

Michael Rebell
Well, what I learned when I was doing the research for flunking democracy was that I wasn’t the first person who understood this problem was concerned about it. There are many scholars, many researchers, many, many educators who had been wringing their hands for years about the lack of real attention to civic preparation of kids. And a lot of them came up with really good instructional methodologies. There have been many Commission’s that have looked into this and have issued reports that really are on target knowing what we need to be doing. But all of that gets put on the back shed, everybody says, Yes, we should do more about civics. But then there are more important things. And you know, our school system, which really was created primarily for the purpose of preparing young people to be citizens in a democracy. That’s what the founders who emphasized the importance of education for democracy, that’s what the founders of the common school movement, which was a precursor of public schools, they created schools, because they knew that and Benjamin Franklin put it, a republic, if you can keep it, we can only survive as this thriving democracy, if citizens if voters understand how government works and what their role in it is. But the point is, people accept that as a truism. But then they think, well, schools have to prepare us for the workplace. They have to prepare kids for getting good jobs. And they do that’s true, but not to the extent that we totally put on the backburner, the responsibility to also prepare kids for civic responsibility. So that’s why I came to the conclusion that educators, by and large, those who are focused on this, they know what can be done, there are good curricula out there, but people don’t pay attention to it. It’s not a priority. So that led me to believe that the way to make it a priority is to bring it to the fore. And the way our system works, people pay a lot of attention when there’s a major statement by the highest court in the state, but certainly by the highest court in the country. And I think if the US Supreme Court were to come down with a decision that says there is a right to proper civic preparation in the schools, or right both for individual students, and really for our society at large. This is what we need today. That would have a galvanizing effect that would really make people understand how civic education needs to be a priority in 21st century

Jenna Spinelle
And I want to come back to that the prospects for the Supreme Court maybe where that might go. But can you talk a little bit about some of the legal foundation or the legal framework upon which something like this might be built or you know, some of the cases that you’ve pointed to in your your work that get us here?

Michael Rebell
Well, there are two major decisions of the US Supreme Court dealing with education that have had a profound impact on our society, ever since the 50s. If that’s the starting point, in our discussion these days, the first of course, was Brown versus Board of Education. And as I think just about everybody knows that it’s the landmark case that outlawed racial discrimination, racial segregation in the schools. But there was a follow up case to brown about 20 years later, the Rodriguez case, Rodriguez had to do with fair funding. By the time that case was brought, there was substantial progress in many areas in the Deep South, in integrating the schools physically. But what came to be realized was in many areas, you were putting poor white children into buildings with poor black children, but none of them had sufficient resources, sufficient opportunities for getting quality education. So there was a real push for fair funding for equalizing funding. And as many of your listeners are aware, I’m sure, in our country, over the generations, we’ve built the financing system for education, to a large extent a local property taxes, which means if you happen to live in a property poor district, you’re a real disadvantage in getting enough resources for education. And ironically, those property poor districts are usually the ones that have the neediest kids. So our system over the years, has perpetuated a situation where those with the greatest needs have the fewest resources. That’s the issue that came to the US Supreme Court in 1973. In this Rodriguez case, and quite frankly, to the surprise of many people at the time, the court said, yes, there’s a great inequity here. And the kids in the poor district are at a real disadvantage. But despite brown talking about how important education is, they said, There’s nothing not a word in the US Constitution about education. It’s not a federal issue, we’re going to leave it to the states. That was a very close five, four decision. And it’s had a profound impact. It meant that the federal government was going to do nothing about equalizing fair funding. And it’s also meant they’ve been hands off in other areas. Sometimes when education intersects with free speech and issues like that the courts will get involved but on quality of education funding of education, the Supreme Court said we’re leaving it to the states. And as I explained in flunking democracy, in the area of social studies, civics education, leaving it to the states means a hodgepodge of reaction and low priority in most states.

Jenna Spinelle
And so you have, as I understand it, you took this forward in Rhode Island last year, tell us about that, and sort of where things go from here.

Michael Rebell
You know, if you’re a lawyer looking for reform, you look for a place where the facts are clear. And unfortunately, Rhode Island was a place that has, in my mind, one of the worst civic education systems in the country. At the time, we brought the case, they did not require any civics in the schools, they had no way of assessing where the kids had learned any civic values. Symbolically, I think it was very interesting that the position of social studies coordinator in the State Education Department had remained unfilled for five years or so it was a very low priority there. And when we went to Rhode Island and asked people whether they thought this kind of case would be important, whether there would be support for it. There was really an outpouring of support. First meeting, I went through there, we had over 100 groups and individuals. So it seemed to be the right place to bring the case. And and we did, and we got a very interesting decision from the federal district court where the case was first heard back in 2020, I guess it was, Judge William Smith, who was the chief judge of the federal district court there heard the case gave it a lot of attention, I must say, today we had the argument. We had about 50 Young people in the courtroom. We have 14 plaintiffs in the case they’re young people from throughout the state. All ages, they range from high school seniors to a newborn we hit that was a few months old and the mother said I’m joining this case because they take a while but I want my daughter to have a good solid civics. Education when the time comes, anyhow, we not only had the most of the plaintiffs, but a lot of them brought their friends. So we had about 50 people in the class of young people in the classroom. And the judge walked in. And the first thing he did was greet the students. And he said, you’re going to get a great lips and civics today. And he gave it to them, we had an HeartCode for about an hour and a half, which is unusual in a federal court. Anyway, to make a long story short, we had a really interesting result from this, the judge took an extraordinary amount of time to issue the decision when it came out. It was about 50 pages. And it is the most persuasive, the most convincing statement of how important civic education is in modern times that I think I’ve ever read. And the judge says quite clearly that American democracy is in peril. And it is really important that the schools pay attention to civic education, a thank the students for bringing this important case, and said, We from the older generation, have to listen to their plea, that something has to be done to improve this system. But after saying all of that, and producing this document that quite frankly, I hand to anybody who’s interested in the area, because it was so well done. He nevertheless said, the court, I feel is incapable of doing what the plaintiffs want of issuing an order to improve the system. I basically said I’m pleading with the governor and the legislature to do something about this, but the court won’t. And it was because he read a lot of the precedents, the Supreme Court cases and all as not being fully supportive of the arguments we’re making. And there is ambiguous language and those, but quite frankly, he set the stage for bringing more than we did appeal to the US Circuit Court and the New England area. And they affirmed the case and said the same thing this judge said which is this is a really important issue. But the existing Supreme Court precedents stand in the way of arguing anything. So that’s why at the present time, we are going to file a petition asking the Supreme Court to take the case, because they’re the only ones can issue a clear statement that’s needed in this area.

Jenna Spinelle
That’s exciting. And that will certainly keep up with that as it moves forward. I want to talk a little bit about public support here. I think even in the couple of years since flunking democracy has come out we’ve seen education become a part of the culture war in a way that it wasn’t and you started to get to some of this with polarization. And we can point to perhaps Glenn Youngkin’s win in in Virginia, where he ran on education as a as a sole issue and the role of parents and it’s all this kind of big morass that’s out there. How do you think about what role public support plays here? Or are you worried at all about a division between what people seem to say they want and where things are heading as far as the courts?

Michael Rebell
Let me back up a minute and talk about how this relates to our lawsuit. If you don’t mind. One of the first questions I got from the federal judges was, what are you asking us to do? Do you want the federal courts to take over the curriculum in the schools and instruct them about exactly what they should be teaching about civics? And our answer is, No, we agree. education in America is primarily a local issue. We very much value participation, local school boards, and all, what we need is for the federal government to just say, kids have a right to this and send it back to the court and Rhode Island, send it back to all the states and say you’ve got a responsibility to do this. And you’ll have to do it in accordance with local priorities, local educational methods, but you’ve got to do it. And you’ve got to show results. So this is that old adage about let 1000 Flowers bloom, that’s what we’re looking for. And you know, if we’re ever going to overcome this polarization, it’s got to be by conversations beginning at the local level, because the problem of polarization is people don’t see each other as humans, they see each other as enemies. And when you deal with these kinds of issues on the national level, it’s hard to break through that. I understand members of Congress who used to go out to lunch with people from the other parties, socialize with them and all they hardly speak to each other in the halls of Congress or out of the halls. But people who are attending local school board meetings, people who are getting involved with their local education systems are dealing with their neighbors. And yes, there are going to be big divisions but this so much more potential there for people having meaningful conversations, for listening to what the other side has to say. And this is what we have to teach our children in the classroom. One of the problems with civic education over the years has been teachers tend to shy away from instructing students on controversial issues on bringing controversial issues into the classroom. But that’s precisely what we need to do today, we’ve got to teach kids that yes, there are great disagreements and our diversity and our differences and backgrounds create more of these differences. But that’s precisely why schools have to give student experiences and instruction in how to have a respectful conversation with somebody with whom you disagree, how to be tolerant to that extent, that’s an opportunity for school boards for educators, for local policymakers, for politicians to realize that rather than exploiting this in a negative way, there’s a positive potential here. And that’s what we’ve got to take advantage of. And that’s what the result of a galvanizing Supreme Court case will be. I think it’ll inspire people to take advantage of the power of the local involvement in education. And I’ll point to the fact that Chief Justice John Roberts, but you know, every year the chief justice issues an annual report to the judiciary that summarizes the past year and looks forward to what needs to be done. And two years ago, Chief Justice Roberts wrote a really powerful annual report that focused 100% on civic education, and talked about how important it was for the maintenance of our constitutional values. Now, he was talking to the federal courts, he gave examples of some courts that were doing great work and bringing high school students into the courthouse to learn about the rule of law to see how judges operate. And he really pleaded with other courts throughout the country to do similar things. I guess what we’re asking, Chief Justice Roberts and the other members of the court to do is extend that further because they can have a huge influence not only inspiring judges to invite high school kids in to the courthouse, which they should. But if John Roberts if the Supreme Court majority, and if we can get a majority that comes from what people see as the liberal justices and the conservative justices, I think they can all unite on saying, we need to bring this country together, we’ve got to discuss how we understand all the strands of our history. The essence of American democracy is the US Constitution.

Jenna Spinelle
You bringing up John Roberts there made me think about the organization iCivics, which was founded by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, you also write in your book about people like Peter Levine and Daniel Allen, who are involved in a project called educating for American democracy that’s that’s looking at this maybe more from a grassroots or teacher led focus. I know there’s also the Civic secures Democracy Act in Congress, which I believe was going to be reintroduced this coming year. So how do you see efforts like that working with the legal route you’re taking? Is this a multi pronged approach? Or does everybody sort of have a role to play here?

 

Michael Rebell

Certainly everybody has a role to play. And I’m glad you brought up those examples of great things that are out there. The educating for American Democracy Act provides curriculum materials, not a curriculum, but ways that local communities can try to understand these various strands of our traditions of our values and put them together, they don’t take a liberal or conservative view, they respect both. So that’s precisely the point. I’m trying to emphasize that we have these wonderful writings, we have these things available. And we’ve got to bring to the fore the importance of every local community, taking advantage of them. And the bill currently pending in Congress, which would provide I think, about a billion dollars worth of funding for local school districts to promote civics. Yes, I think that’s really important, too. You’ve got to have resources to do this job, right. So the resources are potentially there, the materials to have these kinds of conversations in the classroom, in the school boards, they’re there, but people need to be more aware of them. They need to be inspired and motivated to really use these things properly. And I think groups like iCivics that are making this point that are spreading the world around the country are doing a great job, and I hope we’ll be able to convince the Supreme Court to add their voice, which will be incredibly important voice that will really get the message across if they’re willing to And that like,

Jenna Spinelle
Given the current makeup of the court, I mean, how are you feeling about the prospects that I guess one that they’ll agree to hear the case, and that you might end up with a decision that you’re hoping for? Well,

Michael Rebell
You know, as I say, people talk about this being a very conservative court, etc, etc. But as I mentioned earlier, civics is not a liberal or a conservative issue. And Chief Justice Roberts has certainly made it clear that he understands the importance of preparing young people understanding and acting on constitutional values. Many of the other justices, just a soda, my air has taken over to chair iCivics, the group that you mentioned, since Sandra Day O’Connor retired from that, just discourse it, for instance, has been very outspoken on the importance of civic education. Last year, he wrote a book called The Republic, if you can keep it, quoting that Ben Franklin phrase. So I’m hopeful that, you know, by example, this Supreme Court can get beyond the polarized political values, and say, you know, we’re liberal or conservative in our personal views, but we’re all Americans. And we understand the importance of bringing our young people together, and overcoming the current challenges to democracy, and moving aside to a much more American values path.

Jenna Spinelle
And that last question here for you, Michael, what is the timeline for moving all this forward to the Supreme Court?

Michael Rebell
We’re going to be filing what’s called a petition for cert and May or June. And then the court usually takes a couple of months to decide whether they’re going to take a case, they do take very few cases, I understand that. But we’re hoping we can build support for this. And the more people like you let us tell the folks out there, how important it is, the more people may write letters to the editor, the more amicus briefs, we may get supporting the case, the buzz about it makes a difference. So if people think this is a cause worth supporting, we’d appreciate your talking it up.

Jenna Spinelle
Well, Michael, thank you so much for all of your work in this area. And thanks for joining us today to talk about it.

Michael Rebell
It’s my pleasure. And thank you for your attention and your interest in this important area.

Chris Beem
You know, Michael, I think, as Jenna mentioned, or is, as you mentioned, this book was written two years ago, but this has become very timely, because rebel has brought cases around these very issues. And he talks about the one in Rhode Island, and talks about the denial at the Federal Court level. And it was just on the 11th of January, not long ago at all, that denial was affirmed by the federal appellate court. And so now that’s why he’s kind of left to ask for a review by the Supreme Court, US Supreme Court. We’ll see what happens with that. And he’s right that I mean, maybe we talked about this too bad. John Roberts, in his 2019 report focuses a lot on civic education. So he’s obviously got some sympathy to this question. But Michael, you agree, I think with him, that there is more opportunity at the state court level?

Michael Berkman 
I do. Yes. Sandra Day O’Connor talks about it, too. I mean, I don’t know that it’s impossible to conceive of a world where conservative justices think that schools have a responsibility to teach civic education. That notion of civic education might differ from that of the liberal justices. But I could see where they can each come down that way. To me, I take a step back and think that what I find so interesting about him, and what he’s been doing, and I’ve been following it for a little while is there’s a whole legal strategy here that’s developing, and I’m not a law professor. He is. So if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. But it seems to me it’s operating at two levels, they would love to find a federal constitutional right, to a good civic education. And if they could find that in the Supreme Court, it would wipe the issue out in many of the states, but at the same time, they’re going to continue to shop around for the right kind of cases. It reminds me of how I would often teach the Brown decision to my students, that after the Plessy decision, allowing for a separate but equal was passed. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, laid out a strategy of finding the right cases in Brown was not the first case. Can we step back from that a second and say maybe it’s more in terms of that. We think kids need to act responsibly as citizens. We need kids to act like participatory citizens. What I hear Him say is that if this participatory piece is one that’s really gotten lost, that American government, for example, is often taught as this kind of abstract distance set of institutions, not from the perspective of us citizen are what they should do. And you know, I know some very good teachers, particularly at the college level, who do teach their government classes from that kind of participatory angle. And then a third, even more difficult as a justice oriented citizen, which gets us into all kinds of debates about what that means. And then even another, which I know touches a lot on the writing you’ve done as a moral citizen,

Chris Beem
Right. And of all those, the one aspect that still remains to any degree in high schools, is more often the knowledge part, right? Because those are basically facts facing government classes, we talk about federalism, we talk about checks and balances, pocket veto, and, you know, call it a day. And so we don’t give students first of all, we don’t tell them how difficult it is to be a Democrat, how difficult it is to argue with someone who disagrees with you. And to just kind of accept their equal right to participate in this government, even though they’re saying things that are just anathema to you. And we don’t give them practice.

Michael Berkman
And that is his kind of conflict between the idea that schools are sort of owned by the parents, and that parents have the responsibility for determining what their children are going to learn, and how they’re going to be educated, compared to the idea that I think is embedded in the state constitutions, by the way, that schools are the construction of the community. And they are a institution of the community, in part responsible for teaching people how to be good democratic citizens within that community, that that’s part of what they do. And that this is a real tension between the idea that parents should just get to decide, which is going to really restrict the realm of what you can teach, and that the schools belong to the community. And me, this is a tough nut to crack because we’ve been fighting this out in public education for many, many years.

Chris Beem
And so I think it is all the more difficult, I guess what I would say, it’s just to wrap it up is that this ongoing fight, the weight is far more on the parents side right now than it is on the teachers in the community. And so if we want to engage the question of, look, it’s a more pluralistic society, everybody’s got their different frame of reference, whether it be religion, ethnic, partisan, whatever it is. And we can all educate our kids the way we want. And we’ll just get rid of these fights.

Michael Berkman
But it’s worked. There are other questions that come up. I know about, for example, how much the Hasidic schools are supposed to be teaching their kids a secular subjects. And, and so it seems to me the state could come in and say, well, there’s a certain level of civic education, certainly civic facts, that piece of it, maybe civic experience, maybe that piece of it, maybe having to wrestle with heart issues, from whatever your tradition is, but still allow enough pluralism, then maybe we can come to agreements within the public schools about what they’re doing, because the exit potential exists for other people who just can’t get comfortable with it, to go somewhere else.

Chris Beem
I’m saying that when you say, everybody needs to learn about the 3/5 clause, or everyone needs to learn about the Tulsa race riots, or everybody needs to learn about the march across the Pettus Bridge, whatever, I think it suddenly becomes much more difficult. And then when you say, we’re going to teach you how to argue in a way that engages serious questions like gun control, or abortion, or what have you, and develop democratic skills, I think it’s even harder.

Michael Berkman
And then the schools will do what the heck the schools want to do. Now that your exit option is still there for a lot of people. And I don’t know what that would mean. But that is why he’s through the courts. Because when the court speak, they’re gonna have to listen.

Chris Beem
And the other thing, Jenna brought it up that you know, here’s a scholar who’s walking the walk, who understands this to be a central core issue, and is doing the work filing the cases, and then following them through and arguing them in court. And that is something that just deserves recognition and praise.

Michael Berkman
So yes. And his position for all this is really interesting, I think, just to just throw this out at the end, Chris, he teaches at Columbia Teachers College. So he’s coming to us, not only as an expert in education, but as a legal expert as well. So really, in a great position to tie this all together for us.

Chris Beem
Yeah, yeah. So thanks to Jenna for a really terrific interview. I’m Chris beam.

Michael Berkman
I’m Michael Berkman. Thanks for listening.

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