Public school parents in Rhode Island have asked a federal court to declare that the state’s very spotty provision of instruction in civics and related humanities violates constitutional rights of its high school students. Their complaint has it that, especially in poor neighborhoods, children are taught shockingly little about our state and federal governments and the expected role of the citizen in jury service, voting, taxation and so forth. It seems that fewer than half our states even require the teaching of civics, and the Rhode Island suit would put that failure to the test of “equal protection” and other guarantees.
The New York Times suggests this complaint by parents and children will face unfriendly Supreme Court precedent, specifically, the Rodriguez decision of 1973 which held roughly that states had no federal constitutional duty to assure each school district equal power to spend per pupil above some minimum. The Times takes Rodriguez to be a serious impediment to the Rhode Island suit, though the writer suggests Chief Justice Roberts just might cross the line and give plaintiffs the deciding fifth vote.
I applaud the Rhode Island plaintiffs and am a bit cheerier about their prospects. The Rodriguez decision had nothing to do with any right to specific intellectual content; it concerned only the inequality among the school districts in their capacity, via locally chosen property tax rates, to raise dollars per pupil. The Court decided 5-4 that the disadvantage of property-poor districts was no violation of a child’s right to equal protection.
The Rhode Island complaint is focused, rather, on spending for specific educational purposes; it is about ideas. A part of the child’s basic ideological diet – civic affairs and citizen responsibilities – is being neglected. This is not a money case. It is, rather, the claim that the state cannot conscript children from poor families for an education that is limited to the purely instrumental – to learning skills, not serious civics or personal morality.
The founders of our government school systems saw and emphasized exactly what these plaintiffs seek; it was for those pioneers the primary justification for compelling formal education. Governmental failure here today, if proved, might well implicate a child and parent’s right to an introduction of our young draftees to the endless conversation about civic morality. After all, there is that strong judicial concern about access to ideas, a basic caution lodged in our First Amendment.
I have not seen the complaint. I doubt the lawyers overlooked this source of strength for their clients’ cause, and I wish them luck. Their victory would avail nothing, however, toward correcting the sad reality that low-income parents still would lack the authority of the more financially able to choose their children’s school, either by residential location or paying tuition. The poor will still get whatever the local system decides, or is directed by the courts, to offer in the way of intellectual support for a democratic society.
And still another idea denied the mind of the child will be that the making of a full person may entail the quest for a good that one does not invent – that entails more than “finding yourself.” Every 6-year-old senses a responsibility that no government has decreed but which all states should respect and nurture in their schools. Once that native hunch in the child’s mind has been starved and shrunken, what sort of civic responsibility are we entitled to expect?
I hope these plaintiffs succeed, but let’s be realistic. Such a victory will do little to liberate the lower-income family from the “civics” curriculum to be selected and imposed upon them by unchosen strangers.