America Won’t Live Up to the Promise of “Liberty and Justice for All” Until It Includes All Students

As public schools become more diverse, the demand for more equitable access to quality education continues to grow. Unfortunately, in many states and districts, the quality of the education students receive is not equitable, despite the fact that schools are legally required to serve all students, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, economic status, or sexual orientation. This is especially true for students attending schools with a high concentration of low-income students.

Education is a right for all children. The United States has been a leader in providing education to all children for more than a century. We have made history by educating the masses in a country that was once largely illiterate, and the goal has always been to ensure that every child has access to the same quality education.

America is a country built on a complex tapestry of ideals. It is a place where people can be free to pursue their own happiness, secure in the foundational belief that all are created equal. The idea that the nation, and indeed the world, could be created to reflect this conviction represents the birth of a great experiment.

I usually start my morning by watching reruns of my favorite 90s sitcoms like The Bachelor and Martin, but this day my eyes were fixated on The View. Granted, I’m not a big fan of the popular morning show, but the educator in me told me to watch their discussion of the hot topics related to the recent Supreme Court decision in the Brandi Levy case.

Levy sued her former high school for violation of her First Amendment rights when the school suspended her from the high school cheerleading team for using profanity on social media to express her displeasure at not being on the high school team. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in Levy’s favor, holding that public schools do not have the general authority to regulate student speech off campus.

Of course, Levy’s decision to voice her displeasure via social media was a poor decision on her part, but I still agree with the Supreme Court’s decision. As a high school teacher, I am a big believer in giving young people the opportunity to express their feelings about school issues. It would be naive of me to think that my students never said mean things about me behind my back or on the bus on the way home.

In fact, my former students have openly admitted to using this kind of chatter to vent their frustrations. It’s a bit like how we teachers sometimes go home after a busy day and talk to our loved ones about certain colleagues or students who get on our nerves. It’s just human nature!

On the other hand, I couldn’t help thinking that this decision might give more of our young people the opportunity to speak openly about the problems of systemic racism in their schools. As optimistic as I am about this possibility, I fear that this decision will lead to a politicization of anti-racist messages (both verbal and non-verbal) and open the door to further expressions of hate.

Given the First Amendment’s nuanced language on free speech, I think it’s fair to ask the following question: Will the free speech ordinance be used by educators, districts and advocacy groups to perpetuate a white supremacist culture in our schools?

The Levy case is not the first Supreme Court ruling on free speech in public schools. In the past, the Court has ruled in favor of students in many of these cases. For example, the landmark case of Tinker v. Des Moines, which extended protection of students’ free speech rights to symbolic speech, said schools cannot punish students for their free speech without proving it causes a significant disruption to school property. Several years later, the Supreme Court clarified that schools do not have to wait for an actual disruption, but must be able to make a reasonable forecast of a significant disruption. In other words: Talking should most likely cause a disturbance.

Do black students get equal protection?

There have been several incidents in recent years, mostly involving black students exercising their First Amendment rights and being severely punished by their schools/districts. So I wondered if their right to free speech was really respected and protected by the Basic Law.

Students like India Landry and Mariana Taylor are severely punished by their schools, as if Barnett v. West Virginia never existed. Students like Ben Stapleton and Latrell Taft are seen as segregationists, not young people celebrating their black heritage through their T-shirts. The reality is that most whites are suspicious of any action that threatens white supremacy or causes white discomfort, so it is not surprising that they personally view the actions of these students as a significant disruption to the school environment. Regardless, I would argue that some disruption is necessary in an era where racist behavior often goes unnoticed and offending students receive, at best, a light punishment for their racist misdeeds.

For without the civic engagement of our young people, America cannot fulfill its promise of freedom and justice for all. Yes, I hope the recent Supreme Court ruling on free speech will encourage more young people to speak out against racism in their schools and push for systemic change, but the track record of racism in America still makes me skeptical that systemic change is possible. Still, I remain cautiously optimistic – and only time will tell how important this ruling will be in our fight for racial equality in schools.The following is an excerpt from  Arne Duncan’s recent  report on the State of U.S. Education Inequality:

The U.S. public schools we know today are a direct product of our nation’s history. We built the schools we have in large part because of what we valued as a nation: upward mobility, freedom of movement, and a belief that it was possible for all citizens, of all races and ethnicities, to succeed. As part of the American experiment, we’ve also believed in universal public education, or “common school” as it was once known. In our modern world, education is a societal imperative. For our future to be sustainable, it must be inclusive.. Read more about we must conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and and let us know what you think.

 

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