Jon M: 00:15 Hi, I’m Jon Moscow.
Amy H-L: 00:18 And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools, where we discuss strategies for creating inclusive and equitable schools and youth programs that help students to develop commitment and capacity to build ethical institutions.
Jon M: 00:33 Our guest today is Dr. Mark Santow. Dr. Santow is Associate Professor and Chair of History at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, specializing in 20th century American urban history, politics, civil rights and social policy, is on the faculty advisory board of the UMass black studies and urban studies programs, and serves on the Providence, Rhode Island school board, where he has promoted policies that support school autonomy, social emotional learning, restorative justice, parent involvement, thoughtful and collaborative teaching, inclusive curriculum and equity. Today we’ll be discussing a federal lawsuit in which Dr. Santow and his middle school son, along with 12 other plaintiffs, accused the state of Rhode Island of failing to provide an adequate education under the 14th amendment of the US Constitution. The 14th Amendment, as you recall, guarantees equal protection of the laws. Welcome, Dr. Santow. May we call you Mark?
Mark S: 01:28 Of course. Thank you very much.
Amy H-L: 01:30 Mark, would you give us some background on Cook v Raimondo?
Mark S: 01:36 Sure. I’m of course not a lawyer. I’ll probably wind up prefacing several things I say by putting that out there. So I wasn’t there at the beginning of it. But the attorneys I’ve known who were involved in it, I’ve known for quite a while. I mean there’s sort of an intellectual origins to it, which goes back several decades. And then there’s the immediate origins of it. I became involved in it (I’ll do the immediate part first) when Michael Rebell, who’s our main attorney in the case, or one of his assistants reached out to me just as a member of the school board, actually, not as a Providence public school parent, just trying to get a sense of what civics education was like in the public schools in Rhode Island. On paper there was a pretty robust curriculum. And the question was, you know, whether the reality, particularly in the urban schools, matched up with the robustness on paper. So I did a little digging and a little bit of research about that, and it happened to mention that a lot of…I was not only a Providence public school parent, but that my own research as an American historian is on educational inequality in urban education. And that’s kind of how I got involved in the, in the suit. I mean it’s unusual in a sense because I wear several hats when I’m discussing this and I always feel like I have to kind of preface what I’m going to say by saying which hat I’m wearing when I say it. I’m a parent, I’m an American historian. I’m a member of the school board and, of course I’m a citizen of Rhode Island and of the United States. But all of those things bring me to care a great deal about this suit. The deeper history of it, I’ll defer to some of the attorneys to describe this in greater detail, but the gist of it is that over much of the history of American public education, the federal government has only been very minimally involved, financially or otherwise. That began to change after World War II. It began to change in particular with the civil rights movement around equity issues. As federal funding began to come into the public schools after the 1965 Elementary and Secondary School Education Act and various other pieces of legislation passed in the 1960s, and then of course, federal desegregation orders in the South, we begin to get much more federal involvement. And then it leads to a growing number of lawsuits about equity and access under the 14th Amendment. And most of us think of that as, you know, a sort of Southern Jim Crow thing, and to a certain extent it was. For several years, the U S Supreme Court really didn’t issue any rulings about Northern public schools, segregation and inequality until almost 20 years after the Brown ruling. It doesn’t really happen until the early seventies. Two cases are particularly pivotal, and these, or really one of them in particular, is what gave rise to the Cook suit. It was the San Antonio versus Rodriguez school finance case, which I believe was decided in ’73, and then the Milliken versus Bradley case, which was decided in ’74. The Rodriguez case in 1973 challenged unequal school funding. So San Antonio,Texas, like most places in the United States, including Rhode Island, funded public education by and large through property taxes. So as a consequence, the wealth of the community would affect the amount of money that could go into the public schools, in fact perpetuating economic inequality through public education. So that was challenged by parents in San Antonio and the U S Supreme Court ultimately decided in that ruling that because there was no fundamental constitutional right to an equal education, the funding structure that Texas and most other States had was not unconstitutional. But what Michael Rebell argues is that there’s actually a kind of loophole in there because all the plaintiffs argued in that suit was for equal funding. They didn’t make a case about what constituted an adequate education. What would, what would really make education equal under that circumstance. And the justices sorta left open the possibility that if you could make the case, uh, that, you know, it wasn’t just about funding, it was also that everybody needed a certain kind of, you know, level playing field, um, as citizens, uh, that we might be able to make a constitutional argument to try and get a right to an education. So that’s basically the constitutional loophole that that led to the creation of this case. So Michael Rebell believes that this case in Rhode Island, organized around civics, is an opportunity for us to perhaps not just change things in Rhode Island, but to change things nationally with a federal US Supreme Court ruling.
Amy H-L: 06:22 Is it your thought or Michael’s thought that you could actually imply a right to education under the Constitution?
Mark S: 06:31 Yes, because the argument, I forget which justice it was that said this, I think it was more than one, I think it was Justice Powell and Justice Marshall in the ruling in the Rodriguez case. There was some discussion in there about really the historical origins of public education. And one of the core purposes of public education when it was first established (they were called “common schools” in Massachusetts when they were first created) was to provide people with the skills and the aptitudes to be able to exercise citizenship, the duties of citizenship that a Republic would require. And so I think civics does offer that opportunity in this suit because I think most Americans, regardless of political persuasion, actually would acknowledge that many young people today are not receiving either the information that they need or I think more importantly, the skills, practices, kind of habits, Alexis de Tocqueville put it, you know, that would enable one to “fully exercise democratic citizenship.” You know, our rich suburban white kids getting more of that than students of color. Yes. But I think there’s an argument that even those folks in many cases are not having those opportunities. So, you know, this isn’t just about unlike an unequal funding case or even a school desegregation case, it’s kind of universal in its application. But if you actually act on it, it also will diminish inequality of educational opportunity at the same time.
Jon M: 08:03 So why, why Rhode Island and why now?
Mark S: 08:08 Rhode Island, well, interestingly enough, the educational politics in Rhode Island have shifted drastically since the suit was launched, which I can get into later on if you like. We’re facing a state takeover of the Providence public schools at the moment. So, um, you know, the, the politics have changed here, but I believe the reason why Rhode Island was picked initially is because on paper, in terms of regulations, the Rhode Island Department of Education has a pretty robust social studies curriculum. But there is no social studies director employed by Rhode Island. The office has been empty. The job has been empty, I believe, for several years. There’s no assessment or accountability around civics or government or American history, for that matter. There’s no professional development along those lines. The state has essentially made no attempt whatsoever to fund or support civics education anywhere in the state. The situation is most dire in our urban areas where we don’t have the resources to sort of backfill what the state doesn’t provide. So I believe Rhode Island was picked because there’s a commitment on paper by the people of the state to the importance of civics education. But there’s no follow through. Now, I’m not a lawyer, but I know that that’s a pretty good sort of when you know, one way to make a government or a group of people keep a promise is to sue them to keep their promise. So that’s the rationale for it.
Jon M: 09:45 Now you mentioned both cases around funding inequality and also that there may be a loophole around civics. It’s my understanding is that you’re actually, that the suit is actually asserting two points. One is the lack of civics and that you are also asserting unequal funding between, for example, say Providence schools and suburban schools or wealthy schools in Providence and other schools in Providence.
Mark S: 10:12 Yeah, I mean there’s an inequality, I mean there’s certainly an inequality in terms of funding, but there’s also an inequality in, I mean they’re, they’re interrelated. It’s hard to separate them in many ways. As soon as one gets to a, you know, it starts with an inequality in terms of curriculum and you dig further into the reasons for the inequality. It almost always comes down to an inequality of resources at the same time. So, you know, the primary assertion is that the constitutional responsibility of the state of Rhode Island is to educate all kids in the state, in the public schools to be, you know, full-fledged practicing capable citizens. We are not doing that. And in particular, we are not doing that for our students of color and students living in poverty. And you know, that is in part because of unequal funding. You know, they’ve attempted, several people have attempted to bring lawsuits under state law in Rhode Island to challenge our school financing inequalities. Um, and the Rhode Island Supreme Court has essentially kind of punted on the issue both times. Um, they kicked it back to the state legislature and said the legislature has to act on this and our legislature has not, which is why they are part of whom we’re suing, too.
Amy H-L: 11:28 As an educator, what type of civics curriculum would you like to see in the Rhode Island schools?
Mark S: 11:35 Well, of course it would vary by age, but I know that the research tells us for kids of all ages that civics isn’t just, or even primarily about, you know, learning how representation in Congress is determined or how elections work or, or any of that. Although that of course is important. It’s in a sense in the practices of what one does. So let’s pick middle or high school just as an example. And those are the most kind of problematic areas in the Providence public schools are middle and high school. Our schools here in Providence don’t, with the exception of one high school, don’t have any student government at all. There are very few opportunities for participation in debate, for example, outside of school or in school. We just simply don’t have the resources for it and so it isn’t done. I grew up in a suburban high school outside of New York city where I had all that stuff available. There was a student government, I was on the debate team. There were all sorts of different things that one could do from, you know, middle school onward, that engaged one in conversation with others about civic issues, often confronting people that don’t agree with you. And how do you bring evidence and persuasion to bear? How do you figure out what your own arguments are, what your own commitments are and how your community works, at the local, state and federal level? Um, kids in the Providence public schools, but also in our other urban school systems simply are not getting those opportunities. You know, we have kids, you know, kids here are, are very active in a variety of different issues around police brutality, around educational curriculum, around immigration rights, all sorts of different things. You know, this generation is pretty remarkable in that regard. They’re doing, they’re educating themselves on civics or trying to, including the kids who are plaintiffs to this suit, with no help from the grownups. So, you know, so I, when I think of what a civics education would, would look like, certainly it involves, you know, learning the things that one needs to learn at a government class or a history class and having repeated exposure to those things and having the system value those disciplines. At present, we really only value what we test, it seems, and we don’t test that stuff, but also really providing opportunities for discourse discussion inside school, outside school. Um, and one can do that with younger kids as well. I mean, my elementary school, however many years ago that was, I seem to remember having class elections and that sort of thing in third grade. We followed presidential elections and discussed them in class. Does that happen now? Sure, anecdotally with some teachers perhaps, but not in any kind of systemic way. If you don’t put resources to it, if you don’t hold adults accountable for doing it, kids get the message pretty quickly about what’s important and what’s not.
Jon M: 14:38 In our work, we focus specifically a lot on ethics and we look to John Dewey a lot. Last year the New York State Education Department said in setting out social emotional learning guidelines that they saw ethical decision-making as one of their goals. What role do you think that ethics or ethical decision-making can play in a civics curriculum?
Mark S: 15:09 Well, I would think it would be integral to it because, I mean, part of the challenge of being a democratic citizen is trying to balance your own immediate self interest with the larger community interest. And seeing those two things as distinct, that’s one part of it. But another part of it is becoming aware at a fairly young age that, you know, one has a kind of private self and a public self, uh, in a way. And that in that role as a public self, you sometimes act differently, right? I mean, you’re trying to be understood and to understand what other people have to say. You try and find common ground with others. Um, you express your own interests and beliefs, but you also need to listen and take into account those of those of others. I mean it’s been a long time since I read John Dewey, but I certainly do remember that, you know, the practice of being a democratic citizen is the also the practice of being a good person. I mean Aristotle said that too, I guess, but you know, in order to do one, you kind of have to do the other. Or to put it somewhat differently, democracies properly function, you know, lead to the more ethical behavior by human beings because you’re forced to take into account the good of others. I mean, when I’m thinking of first and second graders, what does that look like? They’re little political philosophers trying to work all that out all the time in their play and everything else. So if we can be more conscious of that in the schools, I mean. Of course, what’s difficult, as soon as you bring up ethics and right and wrong, everybody polarizes and just assumes schools should be value neutral somehow. And you know, I don’t believe in a democracy–I mean there are certain things schools should be value neutral about, but part of what a public education system in a democracy is about is about perpetuating the democracy and enabling American citizens to self-govern. And that’s not value neutral. It’s picking a system and trying to build a school system around it.
Jon M: 17:17 Oh, that’s, that’s a great quick summary of the role of ethics in civics. That’s, that’s really powerful. Um, I wanted to go back for a moment to the court case. So as a historian as well as a plaintiff, why do you think the federal courts have been so resistant to accepting an adequate education as a constitutional right?
Mark S: 17:39 There are good constitutional reasons for being hesitant. There’s no language in the federal Constitution about public education. So, you know, we have a federal system in which, you know, we, regardless of judicial philosophy, we tend to defer often to state or local control. And since education is not mentioned at all in the U S Constitution and is mentioned in most state constitutions, I think there is just sort of a deference to state and local and so the courts have generally shied away from it. Um, you know, I am a historian in particular of, of racial inequality in public education and housing, and I think one of the reasons, and this will sound, you know, sort of cynical or pessimistic, but you know, I generally don’t think the American political system is usually willing to engage in any consideration of educational reform that might shake up racial inequality in any meaningful sense, in particular that will challenge the system that benefits privileged suburban whites. You know, this is why, you know, desegregation, you know, made its way through the court system challenging Jim Crow, which was overtly de jure in terms of segregation. But in the Milliken case, a year after the Rodriguez case, when the focus came to be why is it that the suburban schools around Detroit are all white whereas the urban schools are all black and the funding is unequal. You know, why are we not troubled by that circumstance? And that in the Supreme Court essentially punted on that issue. And we’ve punted on it as a nation ever since. I mean, in my life, the only time I remember anybody talking about it was the Kamala Harris – Joe Biden exchange In the debate a month or two ago about busing. So I think race has a lot to do with it. It’s a long way of saying that I think ultimately race as a lot to do with it.
Jon M: 19:41 But that’s not cynical at all. In fact, if you hadn’t raised it, my follow up question was going to be, but it’s been argued that almost everything in American history has a connection one way or another with slavery and/or race. And did you think that that played a role in…
Mark S: 19:57 Yeah, I think it’s central to it. I think it’s central to it in Rhode Island and I think it’s central to it nationally as well. You know, in my own scholarship I do write about the Rodriguez case, but I actually think the MilliKen case in some ways is just as important. You know, here in Rhode Island, we are in the midst of a state takeover of the Providence public schools. And I don’t know how that’s going to play out, but all the different ideas that are talked about about what the state of Rhode Island might do if it was fully in control of the public schools of Providence. One thing that isn’t talked about at all is racial or economic integration across lines of city, suburb as well as race and class. It’s not on the table. It should be on the table because there’s plenty of evidence that it works. And then there’s a new book by Harvard economist RuckerJohnson that essentially lays out this pretty detailed empirical case that racial integration works, and in fact alongside universal pre-K and significant equal funding, we actually have a pretty good idea about how we might create equal educational opportunity in this country. We just choose not to take the step, uh, because it benefits enough people in the current circumstance that they don’t want to.
Amy H-L: 21:24 Your next book, Saul Alinsky and the Dilemmas of Race in the Post-War City, looks at the historical origins of housing and school segregation in the Chicago area and efforts to grapple with it. In a recent Atlantic Magazine, venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who is cofounder of the League of Education Voters, has disavowed the notion that education can solve the nation’s problems. He says, and I quote, “We should do everything we can to improve our public schools, but our education system cannot compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans. Even the most thoughtful and well intentioned school reform program can’t improve educational outcomes if it ignores the single greatest driver of student achievement, household income.” Do you agree?
Mark S: 22:17 It’s a provocative piece. I’m still trying to figure out how much I agree with it and how much I don’t. It’s not a new argument. I mean, James Coleman’s report on public education 53 years ago made the same argument, if I remember correctly. It was essentially that the, you know, the economic background of the parents more or less determines the educational success of the student. Now, of course the whole historical structural context around why one gets that result, you know, Coleman didn’t talk about that much and I don’t recall it being talked about much in that article in the Atlantic recently, either. Education could make an enormous difference if we could find ways of creating educational equal opportunity in all the spheres that affect it. I mean, we have racial segregation, we have economic segregation. We have a large percentage of students of color who are poor living in high poverty neighborhoods, going to high poverty schools. You know, it requires a lot of change in housing and land use policy and social policy to begin to chip away at that. It took decades to create it through federal policy. It would take decades to unwind it. You know, if we could ever get to the point where we work on those issues, then I think, you know, maybe education could get to the point where it does shape things. But I mean, the part where I, I agree with the article in a way is that I think politically, we put too much of a burden on public education as a way of solving all the problems of our form of capitalism and put too much of the blame for it as well. And in that sense, I think he’s right. I mean, we’d be better off with a social democratic labor policy, you know, than thinking that we can somehow make our current economic system more equal by making our educational system more equal. And in that sense, I think he’s right.
Jon M: 24:20 Thank you. Is there anything that you’d like to add that we haven’t asked about?
Mark S: 24:26 Um, I mean, just getting back to the lawsuit, I mean, I kind of said this before, but I think a curriculum that in many ways is informed not just in history or social studies or even, you know, English or English language arts by civics, but an entire curriculum that’s informed by civics, I think can be transformational. I’m hoping that our lawsuit, particularly because Rhode Island now is looking at some really fundamental questions about education and educational inequality, that civics can be truly transformational as a way of thinking about how we educate our children and what the purpose of public education is from the get go. Because it seems to me to reinforce all the things I’ve learned as a teacher and a professor and a parent that actually worked really well in the classroom, which is not having the teacher, the professor standing at the front of the room, you know, dumping information into the students and then asking them to regurgitate it on the test, but rather as Dewey wrote about a long time ago, by engaging the students in actual, you know, practice in a discussion and thinking through the, you know, the public meanings of the things that they’re looking at. You know, I also think our democracy is at a kind of crisis point. You asked me a question a while back about why now for this lawsuit and some of the reason for why now is specific to Rhode Island. But you know, I think our democracy is in a pretty fundamental crisis of legitimacy at the moment. We’re seeing the rollback on voting rights. We’re seeing lines drawn between who belongs to the polity and who doesn’t that are more restrictive than we’ve seen in my lifetime. You know, we have one of the two major political parties that seems to see its self-interest in disenfranchisement. You know, I don’t think civics is a partisan issue, but I think without civics we’re all in a lot of trouble.
Jon M: 26:24 Speaking to that and to the fact that you said that Rhode Island, in particular, is facing some fundamental questions, when Mike Rebell and other people organized the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which was the New York state case, they did a lot of public organizing around it, they held hearings around the state and so forth. Do you see activism happening in Rhode Island or, for that matter, do you see the possibility of it elsewhere? In terms of sort of building mass public support, using the case as an example, but, but basically insisting on the kind of questions that the case is raising, being dealt with in the political as well as the very, very strictly legal setting?
Mark S: 27:13 I believe that’s starting. We have a very active student movement here in Providence in particular and you know, in a way it makes me happy to see that that they’re kind of dragging the adults along in all of this, which is great. The case itself right now is kind of buried in the drudgery of pieces of paper being exchanged between people. So there’s not a whole lot of action or excitement or public relations attached to it. So, and I also think some of the organizing has been diverted by the question of the state takeover of the Providence public schools because a lot of people are very divided about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing and how can we make it a good thing if it’s a bad thing. You know, I’m hoping as a school board member to insert civics very much into that conversation and I’m not the only one doing it, but that organizing is still kind of underway at the moment. Uh, it’s very much underway. I think one of the problems we’ve had in Rhode Island is that parents in the cities are not terribly organized. Their voices are not heard, so there is a lot of kind of serious democratic groundwork that’s going to have to be done, you know, before we’re ready to have that kind of conversation as a state. Too often the conversation, the people participating in the conversation are essentially just white folks who look like me, and that has to be really opened up, especially if we’re going to shift away from the way we too often talk about public education, which is essentially strictly vocational in the narrowest sense, right, that education is about job growth, economic growth, and individual social mobility. Those things are important, but they’re not the only things that are important.
Amy H-L: 29:03 Actually, growth is a whole different conversation. Thank you so much, Dr. Mark Santow.
Jon M: 29:13 And thank you, listeners, for joining us. You can check out our podcast episodes and articles at our website, ethicalschools.org. We’re on Facebook, Twitter @ethicalschools, and Instagram. Till next week.
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