A Day Short of Independence Day – The Challenge of Acting Affirmatively in the Era After Affirmative Action

Good day, CharterFolk.

In college I acted in a production of Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July.

It’s a play whose unstated theme ruminates on the question: what do people do the day after independence day? 

Yes, the implication goes, achieving independence is vitally important.  But so too is what you do with independence once you have it.

Such are the vexing issues that surface in a play set on the day after the 4th of July.

But what are the ones we should we be grappling with on the day before?

On the 3rd of July, the publishing date for this post?

What are our responsibilities knowing that many in our country have ended up a day short of independence? 

Have ended up never fully welcomed onto the front porch of our national drama, with its guitar and its carefully draped old glory.

Last week’s events re-double the urgency for having proper bearing on matters such as these.

Rarely does an act seemed both so fateful and so fated as last week’s Supreme Court decision on affirmative action.

It played out almost exactly as Andy and I discussed it in last week’s WonkyFolk podcast before the decision was announced.

The Journal, as it is wont to do, made its attempt to articulate the mainstream conservative point of view on the occasion.

Its editorial Thursday concluded thusly:

The U.S. still has much work to do to achieve a truly color-blind society. Above all it needs to liberate a K-12 education system that traps too many minorities in failure factories. But the attempt to discriminate by race in college admissions to make up for that failure creates other problems and judges individuals not by their talent or character but the color of their skin. As the Chief underscores, “Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

A day later, in case there was someone in the solar system who couldn’t connect the Journal’s Jupiter-sized dots, the editorial board made plain that Randi Weingarten is primarily to blame.

The unions more than anyone else are responsible for racial differences in education. College racial preferences try to paper over those disparities while easing political pressure for education reform. Ms. Weingarten can’t admit this because she’d indict her life’s work.

Now, I don’t think there are many CharterFolk readers who would say I go too easy on teacher unions for the menacing influence they have on public education today, especially in large urban school districts, and I’m not sheepish about calling out the racial unfairness that results from teacher unions’ pursuit of their own wantonly self-interested agenda.

But being the singular focus of ire the day after the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action?

I’m sorry, CharterFolk. I don’t think it’s even remotely that simple.

Just a cursory perusal of other education stories that surfaced last week makes plain the complexity.

In Baltimore, a school district that operates nearly two dozen schools where not one student is proficient in math …

… sees the local NAACP chapter raise new alarm about the state of education of Black students in its city …

… while that district uses its fiscal conduit position in the landscape to usurp millions of dollars from charter schools …

… schools whose students are overwhelmingly Black …

… schools that the recent CREDO study shows are generating an additional 37 days of learning in both reading and math relative to district schools, some of the strongest performance in the country …

… and now the Maryland Board of Education finds that it was perfectly acceptable for the district to siphon away the charter schools’ money.

And so now KIPP Baltimore, a school led by Executive Director Marsha Reeves …

… that serves a student population that is 99% Black and generates student achievement far above what is happening in district schools, forges on having millions of dollars taken away from its students annually.

We move to Texas, where the state board of education approved four new charter applications last week …

… but denied a fifth.

Which was the fifth?

The one brought forward by a Black founding group …

… including Founding Executive Director Chaneeka Rich …

… who has 13 years of experience as an educator, including seven as a Founding Director of the highly successful Uplift Ascend Preparatory charter school, and Board Chair Allen Anderson …

… who also has years of experience at Uplift Ascend and has gone on to a leadership role at Pahara.

State Board Members, both Democrat and Republican, were explicit that their no votes were a function of politics, not pedagogy.

Board members Aicha Davis, D-Fort Worth, and Aaron Kinsey, R-Midland, raised concerns about the school’s connections to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. 

Kinsey researched the Village’s board members and found several worked for companies committed to diversity and inclusion efforts. He asked how the school would reconcile that at a time when the Legislature just banned those initiatives from public colleges and universities.

So now the historic Southside community of Fort Worth, the historically Black community that the school developers are committed to serve …

… must wait for improved educational opportunity even longer.

In Connecticut, the planners of Middletown Capital Prep, one of the two schools that were approved for opening by the Connecticut Board of Education …

…but were denied funding by the Connecticut legislature …

… despite the fact that local NAACP leadership is in support of the school …

… aren’t giving up the fight.

As it is wont to do for its constituency, the Middletown Racial Justice Coalition made its attempt to articulate the progressive point of view on the occasion.

“While we understand, agree, and empathize with the reasons people of color would want to remove their children from our current school systems, the MRJC firmly believes that the answer is to continue to put pressure on these systems to demand they educate and treat our children with the respect they deserve,” the letter read. “We know that our current educational systems are racist and that they are not treating families of color with the dignity they deserve. It’s understandable that folks would want to leave. But with respect to the needs of every child of color in Middletown, these current systems are all many of us will continue to have access to, regardless of Capital Prep Middletown. We need to be demanding more from our public schools! Our communities need funding for anti-racist teaching, hiring, and curriculum development. Capital Prep Middletown will not eradicate the issues of racism for all, or even most, of our children of color in Middletown.”

It’s essentially the mirror image of the Journal’s editorial.

Yes, the world is still full of unfairness. But live with it because what you propose to do about it only makes things worse.

So a circumstance that all sides see to be unfair is allowed to go on and on.

With each side calling out its particular culprit.

The Journal cites the teacher unions, and surely, in each of the three situations depicted above, teacher unions played their deep-power role helping the public education Establishment hold back change.

But do they really hold back everything by themselves?

Look at Connecticut more broadly, a public school system that is famous even in the most progressive of publications for its non-progressiveness.

As Ruben Felipe, the Executive Director of the Connecticut Charter Schools Association, wrote in his Contributor Column from last year:

How do you think such a map came to be? By the teacher union just getting out its surveying equipment and drawing up lines?

The situation surrounding the Dansbury charter, the second school to be denied funding this month, is illustrative. That proposed charter school has been left out of the state budget year after year …

… going back to 2018.

There is widespread understanding that education conditions in Dansbury are intolerable.

So Connecticut made a new open enrollment program that would give students the right to attend public schools in surrounding school districts. But sadly …

… the surrounding school districts won’t accept new kids. And who is it that is leading the opposition?

The teacher union?

It was the parents of the surrounding school districts who showed up in droves at board meetings to object as this woman did …

… stating that “equal educational opportunity” is available in places like Dansbury, that students “who have the desire and the will to learn” will have the chance to go to great universities, and besides, there’s been a lot of learning loss right now and the focus needs to be on “our kids.”

So other people’s kids, like this one …

… remain out in the educational cold.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Open Choice was supposed to be a tool that suburban districts could use to help integrate their schools instead of the state redrawing school district boundaries, as the Supreme Court pointed to as the culprit of segregation in the Sheff case.

But year after year, millions that the state has set aside to pay for Open Choice go unspent when suburban districts decline to offer more seats, despite declining enrollment in their towns. In New Haven and Bridgeport, fewer than 300 kids from each city land a spot in Open Choice.

And so, the kids of Dansbury end up doubly denied.

Denied access to better educational opportunity that could be provided by a new charter in their town.

And denied access to better educational opportunity that could be provided by existing public schools in surrounding towns.

This, then, makes plain the part of the equation that the Wall Street Journal editorial board fails to recognize.

The fact is that educational opportunity in our country is neither excellent nor fair enough for two big reasons.

The first is that the size of the high quality educational pie is just too small, and teacher unions in combination with a whole phalanx of status quo providers including school district administrators, school boards, other employee groups and co-opted private businesses, work to keep the pie from growing by shutting down any new public education endeavors that are proposed, most often charter schools.

The second is that the high quality educational pie is divided up unfairly, with the best opportunity going to those with advantage, and parents and their attendant community partners who are happy with the way society has chosen to allocate educational opportunity to date resist anything that might blur the lines behind which they’ve been able to get their children and their locality special benefit.

And while I doubt there is a perfect overlap between the voters who support the ending of affirmative action, and the voters who support public schools being able to keep out kids through school district boundaries and school attendance zones, the overall count is probably about the same.

Only 32% of Americans say they oppose the Supreme Court’s decision ending affirmative action.

Given the chance to reinstate it in California a few years ago …

… only 43% of Californians, supposedly liberal Californians, voted in the affirmative.

For me, what got me into education in first place was the sense that something was not fair.

Not things that happened decades or centuries ago, but what is happening right now. And the closer I got to the problem, the greater I came to support anything and everything that might make things better as quickly as possible.

Yes, of course, make our public schools better as fast as we possibly can.

But until that independence day can be reached …

(… and truth be told, as far as the quality of educational opportunity and the fair allocation of that opportunity goes, in my view we are far more than just one day away from independence …)

… support also things like affirmative action on the back end to get underserved kids into better educational opportunity in college.

These are ideas I still support, just like I know a lot of other CharterFolk do.

Because we see that, acknowledging that we still haven’t become a color-blind society and then supporting changes to fix things which won’t come to fruition for generations, as the Wall Street Journal does, will simply leave more generations off the front porch of the American drama.

But on this third of July, the court has spoken, and a sizable portion of the American electorate agrees with what the court has decided.

It leaves us then in the first days of the era after affirmative action … where all of us must find new ways to accelerate the pace at which we act affirmatively.

It starts by calling out those who hold things back, but not to single out any one party unfairly, because the problem is far, far bigger than that.

And the solution will only be found in convincing our society that we can both grow the size of the high quality education pie and divide that pie more fairly …


And in my view, there is no force on the American landscape with greater potential to make progress on those two imperatives at once than the charter school movement.

And many of the things that we imagined could make things better have come to naught, putting even more responsibility on CharterFolk to carry on our work with even greater urgency.

So I go into this year’s fourth even more committed to our movement than I’ve ever been before.

I close with Landford Wilson from the final scene of Fifth of July:

After they had explored all the suns in the universe, and all the planets of all the suns, they realized that there was no other life in the universe, and that they were alone. And they were very happy, because then they knew it was up to them to become all the things they had imagined they would find.