Thursday, April 06, 2006

Judith Winston

For four decades, I have been professionally involved in efforts to make quality education accessible to all children regardless of race, color or ethnicity. However, for almost six decades I have recognized the importance of an education in making my life one full of joy and promise. Learning to read at five opened my life to all of life’s possibilities. I accomplished this because of caring adults in my life and in the face of difficult odds. I attended segregated schools in southern New Jersey for the first four of my school years. Nobody told me about racism or negative stereotypes or myths that would make it difficult for my brothers and sisters to prosper in school and as adults. I was just lucky, I guess. Or, maybe I was able to slip through the “cracks” that existed in a system that was then (and is still, for many) hostile, or unprepared, or institutionally unable to see the promise and possibilities in all children. Maybe, my Italian sounding name and my complexion kept some teachers and classmates in Philadelphia from applying those negative myths to me – even though my junior high school homeroom teacher shared with my mother her view that a “Negro” girl had little chance of ever becoming a lawyer (maybe my mother could persuade me to become a teacher instead).

I am a lawyer, have been for almost thirty years. Now, I know about prejudice and institutional racism. I have seen one legal tool after another weakened and discarded in courts, legislatures, and politics – once they seemed to make a difference, potentially or actually. From the promise of Brown and Charlotte-Mecklenburg to the defeats of Milliken and Rodriguez and the mixed blessings of Grutter and Gratz, gaining educational excellence for all has tested this country’s commitment to its founding principles and the substance of our beliefs in equality.

We will try once again to find a tool that may help us in the judicial and legislative field (and in politics as well?) to help the country secure its future – a fundamental right to education under the U.S. Constitution itself. After so many decades, I am finding the will to curb my enthusiasm because I know the difficulties we face. A federally recognized constitutional right to education is only a tool. One that will not be self-executing but one that, if established, will be the result of lengthy litigation and much, much more litigation, lobbying and general contention before we can put substance on the “bones” of a concept that seeks only to ensure that we make the most of the human resources that form the basis of who and what we are as a country. If only we – every one of us -- could imagine a world where every potential was given a chance to flourish through excellent, accessible, teaching and learning. Would the creativity and dollars to make it happen follow?

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