Yesterday, Power Spoke Truth

Since Sunday, I’ve been at the National Association of Women and Minority Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) convention. It’s been an interesting and long couple of days here in Philadelphia, and to be honest, by late yesterday afternoon, I was ready for a break. But I’m a litigation nerd, so I decided to push through to attend a presentation regarding diversity on the federal bench.

The panelists were impressive:

This panel was legal nerd heaven, and it was moving that every single panelist was a person of color. People of color in positions of power in the legal profession remain all too rare, especially serving as federal judges or federal prosecutors.

But then the introductions ended and substantive discussion began. The first question the moderator asked the panel was something along the lines of, “It’s been sixty years since Brown v. Board of Education was decided. What do you think has been Brown’s legacy?”

The question was thoughtful, but I was expecting platitudes for answers: four jurists and two federal attorneys talking about the opportunities they’d had because of Brown. In particular, I expected the judges to avoid real discussion, because judges are generally careful not to express policy opinions, as they don’t want to disturb their veneers of neutrality. I could not have been more wrong. In this case, the judges were most opinionated: perhaps this is an example of how actual life tenure works (under the Constitution, an Article III judge can only be involuntarily removed by a Congressional impeachment process, which even Campbell Brown or the Vergara plaintiffs would admit is far more protection than unionized public school teachers are afforded).

Chief Judge Tucker went first. I could have jumped out of the audience and kissed her when she responded passionately with something along the lines of, “We need a new Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).  We need to walk back resegregation of our schools over the past decades, and we need new law to again start integrating — and equitably fund — our public schools” (I was not taking notes, and I do not have anything approaching an exact transcript, but that was the gist of it). All five of the Philadelphia based panelists then agreed and added their insights about the destruction of Brown’s impact in recent decades, and described the tragedy that’s been unfolding in Philadelphia with the defunding of its public schools. Judge McKee spoke about the inequity created by not requiring desegregation of private schools, Judge Wells spoke about her conclusion that charter schools exacerbate the problem, despite her previous service on the board of a charter school, and the panelists also spoke about the school-to-prison pipeline and clarified that teachers are not to blame, as they continue to produce extraordinary results, especially given that their resources and funding are non-existent.

The panelists, who were power, spoke truth. They didn’t parrot the education reform talking points. They discussed the impact of charter schools on the process of decimating Philadelphia’s traditional public schools, the hypocrisy they as Philadelphia parents felt when they send their kids to private Quaker schools to escape the destruction of the public school system, the insanity of property-tax base school funding systems, and the need to reboot the legal framework for desegregation by overruling Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974), which held (very generally speaking) that school districts are not required to desegregate across school town lines (i.e., the suburban public school districts surrounding Detroit could not be forced to participate in a desegregation plan for the benefit of Detroit students).

Philadelphians are on the front lines, watching the destruction of their public school system before their eyes.  And these federal jurists, this federal prosecutor, and this federal defender, at least, see through the slick PR machine and hype of the well-heeled reform crowd. No one claimed that charter schools and the education reform movement are the civil rights movement of our time. Philadelphia schools have suffered from the problems common to large urban school districts for many years, but the solution is not to starve them into submission. Yesterday afternoon, three federal judges spoke truth — and their truth was that inequitable funding and the self-perpetuating cycle of the haves fleeing the Philadelphia Public Schools by any means possible are the causes of the problem, and that the education reformers’ “solutions” of charter schools and teacher blaming are only compounding the structural inequities.

I ran up afterwards to shake their hands, which is something I virtually never do. But this was a panel of rock stars, and a completely unexpected reward after two days of legal panels and speakers.

P.S. I have no training as a journalist, and I was not taking notes or recording the session in any way. My reconstruction of the discussion is the best I can do under the circumstances, but the most I can promise is that I did my best to faithfully capture the gist of it.

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