by Félix Pérez
A group of civics, history and social studies teachers traveled to Washington, D.C., yesterday to deliver a message to U.S. Senate leaders that their students know well: failing to do your work has consequences.
The educators were referring to the leaders’ refusal to vote or even hold a hearing on the nomination of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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“It’s hard to explain to students, who believe they should be able to trust what they’ve learned about the constitution and our system of government,” said Marisol García, a middle school teacher from Phoenix. “Students understand expectations, and they don’t understand why senators aren’t meeting theirs.”
Patrick Chambers, who teaches AP history in Indianapolis, Ind., responded to Senate GOP leaders’ rationale for not acting until voters have elected a new president. “The people already decided when they elected the president. Our constitution is too sacred and too trusted to be dragged into partisan politics. It’s a process that been used for years and years.”
Chambers and García were joined by a dozen other educators at a mock hearing held by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to draw attention to the importance of having the full complement of nine justices on the Supreme Court and the harm to individual litigants and society from not having access to the final “safety net” in our system of government.
The educators also participated at a meeting at the White House with senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett.
“It’s not only about Judge Garland,” Jarrett told the educators. “It’s about the future of our country and making sure our students have a system they can trust and eventually lead. Your coming here, speaking out and being engaged gives your students a role model to whom they can aspire. That’s important at a time when so many people have become disillusioned with our government.”
President Barack Obama nominated Garland two months ago. Garland has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the nation’s second most important court, for 19 years. He’s been the court’s chief judge the last three years.
Willisburg, Ky., middle school teacher Lisa Petrey-Kirk said her students have difficulty understanding what appears to be a cut-and-dry situation. She said:
Eighth-graders want rules and process to be applied across the board. It goes against their sense of fairness. ‘Why can’t you get them to do their job? Why aren’t they following the rules?’
High school social studies teacher Pete Clancy, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has sought to personalize what for most students is yet another issue in a litany list of congressional dysfunction. He has incorporated into classroom discussions the significance of a fully functioning Supreme Court. “We talk about Tinker v. Des Moines, in which the court determined a student’s freedom of speech at school. And then there is Brown v. Board of Education, which fundamentally changed the face of public education.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, took a moment to thank the teachers at the Senate hearing. Speaking tongue in cheek about the deadlocked Senate, he said, “When you’re done here today, maybe you can come to the Senate and teach a lesson on civics.”
To a person, all the educators later described how difficult it is to explain to their students how a group of senators can ignore their constitutional duty and precedent. “Students want to know why they’re letting it go so long,” said Licking Heights, Ohio, high school history teacher Gina Daniels. “There are future presidents, elected officials, lawyers and leaders sitting in our classrooms, and they need to see our system of government work.”