As We Gather in Boston, Which Anniversary is Most Important? The 70th? The 50th? Or the 25th!

Good day, CharterFolk.

We gather in Boston this week …

… at a time of different historical threads coming together.

In addition to celebrating the arrival of new leadership for our movement …

… we are recognizing this year the 70th anniversary of Brown v Board.

Simultaneously, we recognize the 50th anniversary …

… of some of the most seminal moments in our host city’s infamous busing saga …

… and of a U.S. Supreme Court decision …

… that many believe marked our nation’s broad retreat from an effort to achieve true excellence and equity in our public schools.

This fall, the American Experience released a great documentary chronicling it all.

CharterFolk, it would be two hours very well spent if you can find the time.

It’s a portrait showing that, yes, some things have changed in the way we operate our nation’s public schools over the past 50 years, but many things remain tragically the same.

Perhaps more than anything else, it’s a portrait of what things were like before the charter school movement came along.

Education in Boston in the 60’s …

… was a travesty …

… just like it was in so many places across our country.

Some of Boston’s, and indeed some of our entire country’s, most revered figures got involved in the struggle to make things better …

… supporting the efforts of countless thousands of parents and educators and students.

But, at that moment in time, tragically, there was no meaningful mechanism by which to begin addressing problems that were so deeply-rooted.

The school district refused to act. 

Local politicians built entire careers around resisting change.

Decades after Brown v Board, opponents to change rode what one newspaper called “The Four Horseman of School Segregation.”

Litigation. Circumvention. Resistance. Evasion.

And there were no players in the landscape to take action in their place.

Because no other players were allowed in the landscape.

Renegade Pre-CharterFolk tried to take action, calling for boycotts …

… transporting their kids …

… to “Liberation Schools” …

… operated by educators of their choosing.

But there was no policy innovation by which to bring those schools into being, to fund them, and ultimately to sustain them.

In short, there was no chartering.

And so within months, having no other choice, sometimes literally singing “lift up every voice and sing” as they went, students, parents and educators alike …

…. were forced to return to the very schools they had sought to escape.

It’s what happens when broken policy prevents people from bringing forward solutions to abhorrent problems.

Lacking meaningful alternatives, other ideas surface which turn out themselves to be abhorrent:

Like forced busing …

… which happened within a narrowly confined, impoverished urban area where nearly all students, Black and White, attended schools in states of abject brokenness and inadequacy.

When Judge Garrity issued his landmark Morgan v. Hennigan decision on April 19, 1974 to desegregate Boston’s public schools, he determined that surrounding suburban school districts would not be included in a broader metropolitan-wide effort to bring greater fairness to the system. It was an aspect of the decision that might have been challenged or appealed, but in July of 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court …

… ruled by a 5-4 margin that suburban schools districts surrounding Detroit could not be made to take part in that city’s integration efforts. It was a case that essentially cracked our entire system of public education …

… along school district lines.

It left Detroit public schools, which were 70% Black at the time, to desegregate on their own. Within a few years they were nearly 90% Black, as White flight accelerated.

These impenetrable boundaries would facilitate white and middle-class flight and concentrate poverty in city centers.39 The decision effectively ensured the re-segregation of public school systems nationwide. A different outcome could have resulted in vastly different metropolitan areas where suburban residence did not guarantee attendance at segregated white schools and urban living need not condemn most children to an inferior education in largely impoverished and segregated Black schools.40

It was a decision whose importance placed it on A1 above the nameplate of the Boston Globe itself …

… and which rippled out from there.

The New York Times said it left the country with a “Wrong Without Remedy.”

So you tell me, CharterFolk.

What’s more important?

Brown v Board?

Or the case that began to dismantle it?

The 70th anniversary we mark this year?

Or the 50th?

To reiterate.

Nothing herein is meant to be some endorsement of forced busing.

Just the opposite.

The idea that anything good was going to come out of forcing Black families to bus their kids into hostile neighborhoods to go to schools attended by poor White kids that were in states of decrepitude nearly as appalling as the ones they had in their local communities.

That was a solution?

Or that anything good was going to come of forcing poor White families to send their kids across town to attend schools they thought even worse than what they already had?

It’s astonishing that forced busing became a focal point at all.

Even worse than its utter futility was what it brought out in people.

The very worst in us.

Our basest, most vile impulses.

People throwing rocks …

… at buses …

… full of young people.

Police escorts were needed for months.

Thousands of parents actually surrounded a school where hundreds of Black students were trapped inside and chanted “Send them back to Africa.”

Images as seared into our national psyche as any that we find.

This is where we were 50 years ago, CharterFolk.

And for 25 years thereafter, 25 years long years, race-based busing stayed in place.

Through decades …

… where little …

… if anything …

… got better in public education.

Until finally in 1999, another long sad chapter of futility in public education was mercifully put to bed when the school district brought it to an end.

But it would turn out to be a monumental year.

A time of baton passing from futility to possibility.

1999, CharterFolk will recall, was the year that Evan Rudall and John King …

… made Roxbury Prep

… which in addition to having helped thousands of students access greatly improved education over the past two and a half decades …

… also yielded the charter school movement its first U.S. Secretary of Education.

Massachusetts Governor William Weld had signed the state’s charter school legislation into law four years before the founding of Roxbury.

It released an explosion of new energy that made national news …

… and that brought out the best in many including the founders of South Boston Harbor Academy …

… which soon became Boston Collegiate.

One of its founders became one of the charter school movement’s first Members of Congress …

… who welcomed us all to Boston this week.

Match Charter School opened the year after Roxbury Prep and soon demonstrated results that drew national attention.

The list of early BostonFolk who went on to have massive impact on education in the United States goes on and on.

Ultimately, the best in us, stacked on top of itself over and over …

… changed the discussion in Boston …

… and led to Boston’s charter schools becoming recognized to be the highest performing sector of charter schools in the country …

… growing to serve a significant percentage of all public school students in the city …

… such that, for the first time in generations, progress was being made in all Boston public schools.

The structural impediments that segregated kids away from improved educational opportunity were finally being erased.

So you tell me, CharterFolk.

What’s more important?

Brown v Board?

The case that began to dismantle it?

Or the movement that showed that the spirit of Brown can actually be achieved!

The 70th anniversary we mark this year?

The 50th?

Or the 25th!

Because as we all know, the charter school community stands ready to do even more.

But in one of the great ironies in the history of public education in the United States, a cap was placed on the growth of charter schools in Boston.

It happened in spite of enormous additional demand coming from parents.

In the spring after the defeat of Question 2, the charter schools of Boston received the largest number of applications they had ever received.

Think of that.

A community that a generation prior had been throwing bricks at buses in protest of policies forcing kids to go to schools outside their areas of residence was now expressing in massive numbers the voluntary willingness to go.

The active desire to go.

It’s an accomplishment few would have even thought possible a half century ago.

Public policy having been transformed from bringing out the worst in us to bringing out the best.

And what is the storyline our opponents were able to convince the public of?

That somehow charter schools make the rest of public education worse, and thus should not be allowed to grow.

Charter schools!

The policy innovation that has proven itself best able to create solutions to deeply rooted problems.

Ultimately, helping all of public education in Boston get better.

Just like we have done in communities across our entire country.

This, CharterFolk is the historical backdrop against which we gather for our national conference to make plans for the future.

It’s a context that frames the challenge before us well.

Not just finding new ways to continue making historical progress on excellence and equity in public education, but finding new ways to communicate about our work such that the public finally understands the unique hope that the charter school school movement represents.

It is a time, yes, when some in our world feel ambivalent.


Dispirited even.

But we can only slip into such ways of thinking if we have lost sight of the significance …

… of the magnitude …

… of what we have already accomplished …

… and of what remains within us if our potential finds its full expression.

Thus this post.

An argument that of the many anniversaries we recognize this year, the 25th is destined to prove the most monumental of them all.

Not just because we have the potential to bring out the best in CharterFolk.

But because, ultimately, we have it within us to bring out the best in all of public education.

Such that we leave eras of futility behind us and fully step into the world of possibility.


More deeply rooted ourselves in the hope we represent …

… on we go.