The California Superior Court’s ruling this past June in Vergara v. California has the school reform rightfully excited over the promise of using the courts to advance systemic reform for our children. But before reformers get too excited, they must keep in mind an important lesson learned by activists in the Civil Rights Movement of the last century: That it is important to aggressively pursue our efforts on all playing fields in American politics — including the grassroots as well as courtrooms, statehouses, and the confines of Capitol Hill — in order to achieve the political, social, and institutional changes needed to help all kids succeed.

geniuslogoStarting in the 1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took to the courts to invalidate Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave blessing to Jim Crow segregation laws passed by southern state legislatures at the turn of the century. Over the next three decades, the NAACP won successive legal victories invalidating separate-yet-equal laws. This included Murray v. Pearson, the Maryland state court decision that was the first to strike down segregation by public institutions of learning, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1939 ruling in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (which built upon Murray v. Pearson at the federal level to end segregation in the Show Me State’s main law school), and Morgan v. Virginia, which found bus terminals to be interstate transit subjected to the U.S. Constitution, which meant states could not apply Jim Crow to any form of interstate commerce.

This legal approach to ending Jim Crow reached its crescendo in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Yet governors and legislators in southern states refused to enforce the court rulings and did all they could to circumvent them. Declaring that “unelected” federal and state judges were engaging in “undemocratic actions” and “judicial activism” that harmed their way of life, southern politicians continued segregation by political and extralegal means. The fact that civil rights litigation was undertaken not just by NAACP, but also by organizations such as the International Labor Defense affiliate of the American Communist Party, allowed Jim Crow segregationists to tar any efforts by civil rights activists as being seditious and treasonous.

States such as Arkansas and Virginia would respond to Brown by refusing to integrate scho0ls and even shutting down entire school districts in a form of massive resistance; others would continue segregating bus stations and other transportation hubs with the acquiescence (forced and otherwise) of businesses. That the NAACP itself was a toothless tiger, unwilling to go beyond litigation (and later, public policy) to advance civil rights, effectively weakened its own efforts.

Civil rights activists learned that it was folly to just expect state and local governments (and the players who financed and shared political ties with the politicians who ran them) to obey and enforce laws. So NAACP, along with the emerging National Urban League, began expanded their efforts from lawsuits to leveraging the federal government’s role in ensuring that all citizens had equal opportunity under the law. This began in 1948 when then-President Harry S. Truman was forced into signing Executive Order 9988, which desegregated the nation’s armed forces. Then it continued into the 1950s with the NAACP and others working with then-Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson to pass the nation’s first civil rights law, as well as the decision by Truman’s successor, Dwight David Eisenhower, to send National Guard troopers to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School a decade later.

But by the beginning of the 1960s, civil rights activists learned that presidents and congresses would only go so far in passing and enforcing civil rights legislation. For Truman, Eisenhower, and by 1961, John F. Kennedy, equal opportunity before the law for blacks was a secondary concern to fighting the Cold War. The fact that southern segregationists such as Richard Russell, James O. Eastland, and J. William Fulbright held great influence over legislation through their control of Senate and House committees often led to Johnson’s civil rights proposals being weakened (when they weren’t killed outright).


Thurgood Marshall (center) and his staff at NAACP would learn the hard way the limits of legal action in ending segregation. Reformers must understand the same limits in order to transform education.

Then the civil rights movement began to fully embrace a final step: Grassroots activism to force states and the federal government to end Jim Crow as well as to win over the public. The roots began in the 1940s with the emergence of the nonviolent resistance approach begun Bayard Rustin and the Congress of Racial Equality with efforts such as the Journey of Reconciliation bus rides into southern cities, then accelerated with the protests and boycotts by Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. By the 1960s, a younger generation of civil rights activists — young black collegians from the South who formed the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, along with military veterans like the legendary James Meredith who demanded that that the rest of the world reflected the integrated military settings in which they served — advanced even more-aggressive activism, dragging King and the NAACP along. They would be joined by celebrities such as comedian Dick Gregory who would help whites and others realize that state-sanctioned discrimination was immoral and unsustainable.

While none of the camps within the civil rights movement were fond of each other, they slowly realized that they needed each others’ efforts and strategies to end Jim Crow. It worked. The Freedom Rides of CORE and SNCC in 1961 forced Kennedy to finally enforce the Morgan ruling. Meredith’s successful lawsuit (filed with help from the NAACP) against Mississippi state government, along with his messianic and militant push to integrate Old Miss, would force states to integrate universities and schools throughout the country. The 1963 Birmingham campaign led by Fred Shuttlesworth and SCLC (along with the brutal response to the protests by the notorious Bull Connor) would, along with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church killing four young girls, forced the Kennedy Administration to begin the push for the passage of what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By the end of the decade, the passage of that law, along with the Voting Rights Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, would fuel lawsuits, protests, and new laws that ultimately lead to America finally fulfilling its promise of equal legal and social opportunity for all under law.

The civil rights movement learned two key lessons. The first? That no one tactic on its own will lead to political and social progress. The limits of every approach, political and otherwise, made such silver-bullet approaches impossible. Secondly: That all political tactics would have to be used to achieve the final goal. Gomillion v. Lightfoot and other rulings ending poll taxes and other restrictions on voting would have remained just paper if not for the Freedom Vote three years and the much-larger Freedom Summer effort in 1964. Freedom Summer, in turn, would have amounted to nothing if it wasn’t followed up by the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Meredith’s famed march through Mississippi in 1966 (which fomented into the last great civil rights demonstration of the era and led to voter registration drives throughout the South), and the small-yet-brave-and-powerful acts such as that of entrepreneur Booker Wright (a subject of this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast).

More than five decades later, school reformers must also embrace those same lessons — and put them to work — in order to sustain the movement’s mission.


Reformers must take to the streets. And the courts. And the statehouses. And the ballot box, too.

The Vergara ruling, which effectively ended near-lifetime employment policies that have long-shielded laggard teachers at the expense of kids, has excited reformers. For good reason. The success of the case so far has finally proven the point your editor has been making over the past three years that civil suits can help advance reform, both by using courts to hold legislators, governors, and school leaders accountable for providing kids with high-quality education, as well as rallying families and communities who want better for their kin. Therefore it is heartening to see Vergara suits such as Wright v. New York, filed earlier this week by Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice, as well as the tort filed earlier last month by the New York City Parents Union.

But reformers must not think that lawsuits alone are the most-important or even only tactic necessary for transforming American public education. This matters because reformers have a penchant for not using every avenue available to tackle the failed policies and practices at the heart of the education crisis. The movement has long focused on winning over policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as on launching institutions such as Teach for America and KIPP, often at the expense of equally-important grassroots activism, civil litigation, and political campaigning. The consequences of these neglected tactics can be seen today in the battles over implementing Common Core reading and math standards, as well as in the limited success of the No Child Left Behind Act in systemic reform.

Certainly stepping up litigation offers plenty of possibilities for the movement. As Andy Rotherham noted back in June after the Vergara ruling, reformers have never been adept at campaign politics. Just as importantly, eight decades of court rulings — driven by the courtroom work of civil rights activists and school funding equity advocates – also provides reformers with the legal arguments necessary to challenge tenure laws and other policies that impede the constitutional obligation of states to provide children with high-quality education.

Yet reformers must keep in mind that litigation, like policymaking and institution-oriented reform efforts, have its own limitations. As civil rights activists and funding equity advocates have long ago learned, courts are limited in their ability to actually enforce the rulings they hand down. That is because the judiciary branch is constitutionally restricted to the role of interpreting law and ensuring that laws are constitutional, not in the business of law enforcement (an executive branch job) or passing legislation itself (which rests within statehouses). Unless judges step up and push enforcement of their rulings through such measures as appointing special masters and fining governments for non-compliance, they have little power beyond the bench.

Even when judges take those steps, this leaves them (and, ultimately, plaintiffs) vulnerable to being accused by recalcitrant politicians and their allies of engaging in judicial activism, of being “unelected dictators” and other buzzwords used by all of different ideological stripes to oppose any effort. They can then engage in massive resistance that will rile up their allies, especially since the latter is also opposed to any change. This was a lesson the NAACP’s Yonkers, N.Y., branch, along with U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Sand, learned all too well in the late 1980s during the effort to desegregate housing and zoning in that northeastern locale. Even if politicians follow the law as they are supposed to, they can still impede reforms by merely following the letter of the ruling and not the spirit. California’s state legislature, which is thoroughly beholden to the National Education Association’s and American Federation of Teachers’ affiliates, may end up on the path to doing just that in the aftermath of the Vergara ruling.

These sobering realities shouldn’t stop reformers from taking to the courts. Far from it. What it does mean is that the movement must build upon successful court action with strong, thoughtful policymaking, successful and thorough implementation, aggressive grassroots advocacy, and single-issue voter efforts. This is also true for successes achieved in statehouses, on the ground, and in political campaigns. No one victory on one front will survive if it isn’t augmented by efforts on others. Because long-term success in American politics — and education is a part of it — is won by victories on all fronts.

This also means that all players within the movement — from Beltway policy wonks to Parent Power activists on the ground — have to work together. It isn’t easy. Even the civil rights movement struggled to agree upon strategies and even mesh conflicting personalities. But it can be done. More importantly, it must. Systemic reform isn’t possible without the respectful interplay of every activist, thinker, school leader, and teacher working to transform these failing super-clusters.

So the movement should embrace Vergara and the potential of lawsuits for reform. But lawsuits alone won’t work. Our children need a movement working on all fronts to build brighter futures for them.