Monday, May 4, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, May 4, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Limits of Rights Talk: Federal Court Declares a Constitutional Right to Literacy
The COVID-19 coronavirus crisis provides a context for seeing many things we might not otherwise see—issues that come under the pressure cooker of the coronavirus crisis that reveal things we might miss otherwise. And one of the things we have seen is that the context of this kind of crisis, it operates like something of a pressure cooker and it speeds up the process of controversy as well as social change. Let's consider controversies related to education, in particular, the education of children. Just recently a federal appeals court handed down to decision saying that children in America have a right to literacy. Fascinating issue, a right to literacy.
As Dana Goldstein of The New York Times tells us, "For the first time in decades, a federal court has declared that American public school students have a constitutional right to an adequate education."
The key paragraph is this: “The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that the state of Michigan had been so negligent toward the educational needs of Detroit students that children had been in the view of the court ‘deprived of access to literacy,’” as the newspaper explains, "The foundational skill that allows Americans to function as citizens in violation of the 14th Amendment."
Now, there are so many issues related to this. Let's think about it carefully. In the first place, it is a scandal to recognize how little education many children actually receive through the educational system and it is also very problematic to see that there are particular systems in which the problems turn out to be even more acute. The City of Detroit has one of those public school systems. The article makes very clear that the school system there suffers from radical deficiencies and the result is that many children graduate or at least they progress through the school system without achieving literacy, even basic literacy. To state the obvious, that is a problem.
From a Christian worldview perspective, one of the first things we need to consider is the fact that literacy should be a prime consideration. It should be a very clear public goal. Now, this is especially true when you're talking about a government that is for the people, of the people, by the people, when you are talking about something like an ordered experiment in liberty, a constitutional order that requires citizens to be involved. If citizens do not have a basic literacy, then they are deprived of the equipment with which to be adequately involved, positively, constructively involved. Christians understand this at an even deeper level, which explains the principle that where you find Christianity, you find schools. Where you find Christians, you find teaching and you find learning.
This goes all the way back to earliest Christian schools known as the catechetical schools. They were schools to teach not only children but adults, the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. Beyond that, churches began to establish schools, especially for children and for young people, and those developed into community schools. They also developed into cathedral schools. Eventually those cathedral schools gave birth to the university. It's easy to understand why Christians would be particularly invested in literacy. Just consider the primacy of the Word of God, of the Holy Scriptures. In our life, in our thinking, in our worship, we are a people of the book and not by accident. The same was true of ancient Israel and where you find Judeo-Christian civilization, you find an emphasis upon literacy. The same thing is true throughout much of the Muslim world with a similar kind of principle. The reality comes down to this: Literacy is the basic equipment for the kind of involvement in society that will make the biggest difference.
So just thinking about this court decision that was handed down just about two weeks ago, having to do with the school system there in Detroit, Christians understand that as the court identified literacy as being of great importance, we certainly agree that literacy is of great importance.
The second issue addressed by the court is justice. The fact that there certainly are injustices demonstrated in a system that at times intentionally, decades ago, invested far more in majority white schools than in majority black schools. That's just a matter of math and it's a part of the historic record. In a city like Detroit that now has a majority of minority students in its enrollment, that turns out to be a very big issue.
Over the course of the last several decades, families with means tended to move into neighboring counties to the city of Detroit. They also tended to take their tax money with them and they established suburban schools. Beyond that, even as the court decision makes clear, people with adequate means, even in Detroit tend to send their children to private schools rather than to public schools. So Christians looking at this ask the question, is there an historic pattern of injustice? And the answer would be yes, but at this point we would also have to look at efforts over the last several decades to try to remedy that injustice, that inequality. Millions and millions, indeed, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent in an effort to try to improve the public schools. All kinds of systems have been developed to try to bring increased equity school system by school system, but there are two fundamental problems.
The first is when you're looking at school systems, they do vary a great deal region by region, even within a state, community by community, in terms of the tax base. Most states have some kind of mechanism in place to try to bring about some kind of support for the poor districts, but the reality is that there are still inequities that are not caused by injustice but are simply explained by the involvement of parents, school system by school system, even in the strength of what may be known as the PTA.
Other issues that have to be addressed include the outsized bureaucracy of the public educational system and that's especially at the national and state levels. But furthermore, we also have to note the fact that the schools are in many cases not even primarily about learning. Just listen to all the conversation about the impact of closing the schools, which means that parents now have to take care of their children during the day. As one observer said in New York City, “The issue about the schools here is not so much what the children are not getting right now in terms of education, but the fact that parents are missing the daycare.”
Something else to be recognized is the fact that when you're looking at the teacher's unions in particular the NEA, you are looking at a very powerful union, in many ways the most powerful union in the United States and it has an outsize influence if not what is rightly described as a stranglehold upon the Democratic party. And one of the things we will consider today is that the teachers unions in particular are very much against assessment.
But looking at this decision that was handed down by the Sixth Circuit related to the schools in Detroit, the biggest issue of worldview consideration comes down to the headline, "US Students Have Right to Literacy, Court Rules." We're told, again, the very lead sentence in the article tells us that, “For the first time in decades, a federal court has declared that American public school students have a constitutional right to an adequate education.” The word that should leap out at you in that headline and in that lead paragraph is the word “right.” The court has declared that children have a right to literacy, a right to an education.
Now as Christians consider this, we just began talking about the priority of education, which Christians do understand, the imperative of literacy, the reality of inequalities in the school systems. Yes, all of that has been considered, but the biggest problem here is the declaration that children have a right to an education. The problem is not that we don't believe that children should be educated. We profoundly do believe that all children should be educated. The issue is declaring this to be a right. And furthermore, the Sixth Circuit doesn't rule on the basis of rights that are supposedly drawn out of thin air, but rights that are grounded in the Constitution.
But here we meet a big controversy and it comes down to this: Are the rights that are constitutionally guaranteed, enumerated and stated within the Constitution or do courts in the present time have the right to just declare that somewhere in there is this right or that right?
Understand the danger of this second route, and this is exactly what has produced court decisions such as Roe v. Wade in 1973, declaring that a woman has a right to an abortion, a constitutional right. The profound and obvious fact is that the United States Constitution does not mention abortion has never mentioned abortion and the framers of the Constitution, it cannot be plausibly argued, had abortion in mind in any way. It is simply not in the US Constitution. But back in 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States declared it's in there somewhere. It's meant there. This has gone on again and again and again sometimes having to do with abortion and moral issues, sometimes having to do with just about anything else as in this case having to do with literacy. In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that States must recognize the legality of same sex marriage because once again, it's not in the Constitution, but the court declared that it is nonetheless a constitutional right.
Here's a huge problem. When we make every good thing a right, then that actually undermines all legitimate rights. Furthermore, even as literacy, it can be argued as basic to effective citizenship, you can make the same argument concerning property or transportation or just about anything else. You could declare that American citizens simply by being citizens, have a right to transportation or a right to insurance. You could go down the entire list. You see where the problem arises. If you expand rights to mean every good thing that we would want every human being to have or to have the opportunity to have, then that undermines the legitimacy of the rights that are stated and enumerated, for example, in the United States Constitution.
Years ago, Harvard Law School Professor Mary Ann Glendon pointed to this problem. She identified it as “rights talk.” It is the devolution, the transformation of all moral language in the United States into matters of rights, her rights, his rights, their rights, my rights. The problem is as she made so clear, when everything is put into the language of rights talk, then all rights become political, which is exactly what the framers of the Constitution tried to prevent in enumerating certain rights, such as in the First Amendment, what we know is religious liberty, the right of worship, the free exercise of religion, such as the right of assembly, the right of a free press. Those are the kinds of rights that are enumerated, clearly stated within the Constitution of the United States.
We started out looking at a big story about a court decision on education, but it turned out to reveal a superstructure of issues that get to even more fundamental issues, issues of literacy and what Christians understand about the importance of literacy, issues of inequality and justice, and issues, of course, of the politicization of all of these issues and fundamentally the devolution of it all into rights talk.
If Everyone Is an ‘A’ Student, Then No One Is an 'A' Student: Will COVID-19 Mean the End of Meaningful Grades and Standardized Testing?
But looking further at the educational controversies in the midst of the pandemic, there are some really fascinating things going on, not just court decisions. For example, The New York Times ran an article last Friday by Dana Goldstein, in which she talks about the fact that school districts across the country are trying to decide what to do with grading now that the school year has been interrupted by the coronavirus. What do you do, especially with high school students who are trying to put together a grading pattern that would impress college admissions programs? Especially, you're looking at students who may depend upon certain grades in order to buttress their application to certain colleges and universities.
Goldstein reports, "As high schools approach the end of an academic year without proms or field trips or graduation ceremonies, another fundamental part of American education is being transformed: the report card. School districts across the country,” we're told, “have adopted new grading systems for this semester driven by concern for students who face hardship from the coronavirus and its economic fallout. Some districts,” we are told, “have dropped the letter grades altogether while others are guaranteeing As in most cases or ensuring that students performance during the pandemic will not count against them.”
The report goes on to tell us, "But there are places where administrators have encountered stiff resistance to the idea of dropping grades even temporarily." Well, here again, you've got all kinds of issues that come to fall. What's fair? What's unfair? Is it fair to say everyone gets an A? Well, it's fair if you would otherwise have gotten a C, but now you get an A, it probably looks fair to that student. It doesn't look fair to the student who earned the A and wants to see an A mean something.
It's also extremely interesting that Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, she's a professor at the University of Southern California, tells us that, "Half of high school students today graduate with an A minus average." So she asked the question, "How meaningful is an A?" This has become a matter of consternation and perplexity to not only many students and teachers, but to the admissions officers of colleges and universities. Once again, if almost everyone is an A student, then no one is in A student, not an A taken by itself. It also raises the question, does an A here mean what an A means elsewhere? Those are huge questions. Again, equity and fairness. Massive questions that come into this. What is a school system to do?
One of the most interesting aspects of that article by Dana Goldstein is the fact that you've got many parents who insist there must be grades and there are many students who insist there must be grades. There are a lot of students who are actually trying to finish the semester stronger than perhaps some other terms. Again, in order to bring up their grade point average for graduation. If everything is now a pass fail or if everyone gets an A, then the schools are going to discount that in their admissions process.
Goldstein tells us that in New York City, which is the nation's largest public school district, the school system is still going to issue letter grades for this year, but there will be no failing scores. Instead, students will be marked "in progress.” There are clearly huge inequities. There are some students who made the transition online very well. There are other students who do not even have access to a Wi-Fi system. No one looking at that would say that's fair, but no one at this point knows how to rectify this. To state the obvious, no one was planning on this pandemic and the pandemic has simply revealed the fault lines in American society.
Something else we're going to be looking at this week, in particular on The Briefing, is the fact that in the midst of this crisis we really are looking once again at the indispensability of the family. High school seniors quoted in the article including some from the San Mateo Union High School District, South of San Francisco, said things like this. One female student said, "Without letter grades, what motivation do we have to continue working for the end of the school year?" This student is clearly academically minded, describing herself as having 97s in most of my classes. You'll notice not 98s, not 96s, but 97s. She knows it right down to the single digit.
But even as there are inequalities, quite obvious in the system, it isn't obvious that you know exactly what those inequities are or how to resolve them. For example, some of those who are advocates for students from lower-income families are also arguing there should be grades because the ability of those students to earn grades is a necessary way of climbing the ladder of success. If you deprive students of meaningful grades, then you're not just hurting the rich kids in the San Francisco suburbs, you're also hurting the poorer kids who've been working hard on those grades in school systems across the United States.
But that raises yet another issue, and this takes us to that article by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett of the University of Southern California. She's arguing that the pandemic is not the proper context for abolishing the SAT, the Scholastic Aptitude Test as it is known. And the SAT raises a host of other issues because as you are looking at the fact, and it is Currid-Halkett who points out the fact that you have about half of all students who have an A minus average, the most competitive colleges and universities have to have other means of making assessments for admissions. That's why the SAT emerged in the first place. It emerged as an effort to try to achieve a more equal system in which there was an objective test and it was the same test taken in Detroit or taken in the wealthy suburbs of Los Angeles. The same test taken in Bel-Air, California as in inner city Philadelphia or anywhere else, New York City, Miami, Minneapolis, the same test.
But, of course, it turns out that there are still inequalities. Why? Well, it's because some parents, some families have both the intention and the means of pushing their offspring into classes that teach them how to take exams such as the SAT, how to make a better score. And of course, there's the fundamental issue that there are some parents who are far more invested in the education of their children than others. There are some children who have two parents to help them on these issues and to encourage them and there are some children who have only one parent or even some children who do not have any parent meaningfully involved in encouraging their education. Is that fair? No, of course it isn't fair from the viewpoint of the child, but it also points out that fair is an issue that is not well resolved by comprehensive national policy even by the best intended. This also reminds us of that basic principle of the molecular strength of society coming down to the atomic structure of marriage and family.
Professor Currid-Halkett also points to the reality that there are many who are advocates for the underprivileged who are saying using the SAT is unfair. But there are other advocates for the very same children saying that abolishing the SAT would be unfair because again, it gives those children an opportunity to gain, to advance in the system towards greater cultural status and access to higher education.
There's something else here that Christian should think about as we're thinking about equity and justice and fairness. It would seem by a Christian worldview perspective that to lean into the more objective rather than the more subjective in these evaluations would be more fair. The whole idea of an increasingly objective standard and measurement was to bring about greater equality, greater access, not less. If you remove the ACT and the SAT or meaningful grades, then you just have nothing left but more subjective and opportunistic systems to try to identify who should get in the most elite colleges and universities in the United States. And make no mistake, that's a huge issue of cultural significance.
What Does ‘Fair’ Look Like During a Pandemic? Who Decides?
That then takes us to another educational arena under the pressure of the coronavirus, also very revealing. Steven Davidoff Solomon, a professor at University of California at Berkeley, a law professor there, by the way, offered an article in The Wall Street journal. The headline: “Berkeley Schools Leave Every Child Behind.” Now that is to recall of course, ironically the No Child Left Behind Bill that emerged in the George W. Bush administration in an effort toward school reform. The issue here has to do with what Professor Solomon is telling us about the public school system there in Berkeley, California.
Number one, he tells us that it represents some of the greatest inequality of any school system in the United States. Now, think about that. You're talking about a public school system in which the dominant cultural identification is one of the most liberal college campuses in the United States, but that entire area—the Bay Area where Berkeley and Palo Alto, that's where Stanford University is located, San Francisco—that entire area demonstrates some of the greatest wealth inequality, some of the greatest housing inequality and educational inequality found anywhere in the United States. The same thing is true by the way, in another liberal enclave. Just to give one example, Manhattan.
Professor Solomon was writing about the fact that the Berkeley school system had decided at that point not to go online in instruction because not all children would have equal access. Then again, Professor Solomon says, "Well, that just dooms all children." Therefore the headline: “Leave Every Child Behind.” He also writes about his colleagues on the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley. Speaking of his law school faculty colleagues, he says most of them send their kids to private schools. No surprise there. "They'll continue to pull ahead. Public school parents who have the means and resources to educate their kids will do so. The kids who need it most,” he writes, “those who supposedly lack access will fall further behind.” He continues "That's true elsewhere as well. Affluent suburban school districts near Philadelphia already offer online access." That's in contrast to some of the inner city systems. And again, the point is that some of these school systems who are not taking teaching, especially curriculum online, are not doing so in the name of equity.
The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial statement entitled: “The Teacher's Union Ate My Homework.” And there is no mistake in the fact that the editors blame the political power of the teacher's unions as a major obstacle in educating America's children. Speaking of those particular school systems that are not taking their curriculum online, the editors say, "Administrators are forcing all children attending public schools to put their education on hold, depriving them of its structure in a chaotic time." The editors conclude, "Some school boards and nonprofits are already working hard to provide laptops and Wi-Fi access to the neediest students. State and federal law makers could set aside funding for extra help for the kids who struggle most during the shutdowns. It's not a perfect fix,” said the editors, “but it's better than bluntly concluding that fairness requires canceling everyone's education."
All these stories today offer revelations of what's going on in our society at the worldview level. Just seeing today at the intersection of education and the pandemic. We've considered everything from literacy and funding to grades and even the SAT. We've looked at whether or not schools are going to continue online education for children and it all comes down to this: In a fallen world, there are no perfect solutions, but there are better and worse solutions, and wisdom is going for the better and avoiding the worse.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
There is so much conversation in the midst of the pandemic of what we can't do and that includes summer camps for young people, teenagers, and youth. But I want to tell you something that you can do.
Boyce College remains committed to supporting the discipleship of the local church and helping young Christians deepen their faith in the midst of an increasingly secular culture. So I'm hoping that you'll join me this summer for the D3, that is Disciple Three, Youth Conference, an online, travel-free event that will allow churches to commit to a summer youth conference without having any uncertainty, potential restrictions, or the possibility of cancellation.
During D3, high school students will hear God's word preached by faithful speakers, participate in activities led by Boyce College students, and study with Boyce faculty in interactive online classrooms. To learn more and to register, visit D3youth.com. That's D3youth.com.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.