In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court identified America’s system of public education as “the very foundation of good citizenship.” An educated public is critical to a system that relies on popular elections, which is why Justice Felix Frankfurter referred to public school teachers as “the priests of our democracy.” Yet in recent decades, politicians and educators have downplayed this reality, viewing public schools primarily as places to equip students to become skilled workers. “A world-class education,” President Barack Obama argued in 2011, “is the single most important factor in determining not just whether our kids can compete for the best jobs but whether America can out-compete countries around the world.” Educators adopted the mantra that schools must enable students to be “career and college ready,” with little thought for preparing them to be good citizens.

How do we go about putting democracy back into public education? Two new books from University of Chicago professors—one a legal scholar, the other a sociologist—offer important answers. The law professor Justin Driver traces the efforts of the Supreme Court to uphold the principles of the Constitution in the education system in his engaging and absorbing new book, The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind. “No civic task is more essential,” he writes, “than ensuring that the Constitution is viewed in public schools not as some abstract piece of parchment” but as “a vital, meaningful document whose principles inform students’ lives every time they step within the schoolhouse gate.” Yet in tackling issues from the use of corporal punishment to a student’s right to equal educational resources, the courts have fallen short.

Eve L. Ewing, like Driver, takes on big issues of education, race and democracy in her book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side. But Ewing, a sociologist in the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, a poet, and a former schoolteacher, takes a very different tack, focusing on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 proposal to close a large number of public schools, most of them in African American communities. Emanuel’s rationale was that the schools were underutilized and struggled academically. The proposal caused an uproar, including a lengthy hunger strike at one school. Ewing’s book asks a poignant question: “If the schools were so terrible, why did people fight for them so adamantly?”

Ewing makes a powerful case that the mayor and Chicago Public Schools officials failed to understand that the importance of a school couldn’t be reduced to test score results and utilization rates. Community members, she writes, had “a different understanding of what evidence should count in determining the value of a school.” Ewing and Driver share a commitment to the principles of equality, but they emphasize different routes toward that end, with Ewing making a close study of how a community works to uphold these values and Driver telling a history of the arguments and institutions that can bring change down from on high. Together, these two approaches provide paths to restoring public education as the fountainhead of our democracy.