Arts

The Story Behind the Book | Kate Tuttle

How courts steer American schools

Justin Driver
David Wilson for the Boston Globe
Justin Driver

For Justin Driver, his book’s topic is personal. “I grew up in Southeast DC, in the less privileged segment of Washington,” said Driver, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. His parents, who stressed educational achievement, enrolled him in a better public school far from their own struggling neighborhood. “It was a long journey: a bus and two different subways lines and a pretty long walk.”

His teachers taught him about Brown v. Board of Education, but even more than three decades after the landmark desegregation ruling, Driver knew that “there were still all-black schools, some within shouting distance of the Supreme Court.” The inescapable lesson: “There’s often a big gap between law in the books and life in the streets.”

In “The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind,” Driver argues that constitutional rulings have had a huge impact on American public education. He chronicles key cases that ponder the rights of students to free speech and religious liberty, but it was 1973’s San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez case, about funding public schools based on local property taxes, that “ultimately led me to law school,” he said. “The idea that the students who come from the most modest backgrounds should then receive the least expenditure per pupil struck me as deeply unjust.”

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Driver said he anticipates the Supreme Court will weigh in on cases involving the right to a public school education for undocumented immigrant children, as well as issues of religion, gender expression, and race. “Parents are incredibly invested in and concerned about the environment that their children are in for long stretches of the day,” he said. “It’s also true that this is a place where future citizens are being formed, and people feel very passionately on all sides that we need to be careful in this context.”

Driver will read 7 p.m. Tuesday at Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.