The 2019 College Admissions Scandal, Affirmative Action, and the Politics of Education
“It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”
- quote by Robert Fulghum (author of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”), as popularized by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in 1965.
The US education system is under attack from many sides. Public schools are underfunded, leaving students and teachers to quixotically try to make up the difference in school supplies and other pedagogic resources through bake sales and online charity funding sites. Charter schools, though they provide a substantially better education for their select students, essentially form an elite, quasi-privatized subsystem that diverts scant public funds from public schools. Tracking, which is the process of segregating students into cohorts with which they stay throughout their public school careers based on their intellectual, academic, and/or test-taking abilities (think “honors track”, “gifted and talented classes”, “special education classes”, “remedial education”, and other subsections of our public school system), further deprives the great majority of students of the high quality education that is gifted upon elite students.
I was a recipient of exactly this type of elite public school education, and I know well how much benefit I received and how much the majority of my peers did not receive, from elementary through high school. Not only is it a problem that a good education is a rare experience for our nation’s students, but there is another significant problem that too often gets little attention in our national conversation on education. When I became a teacher myself, I witnessed firsthand what was an equally destructive force in our education system - clueless or bullying administrators and lazy and cynical tenured teachers who have forgotten or perhaps never possessed the honorable motivations that make so many young and new teachers enter the profession in the first place: the desire to inspire youth, to educate, to help grow, and to motivate them to create a more perfect society. As an Education Law attorney, I see even more examples of such problematic careerists in our schools. But by consistently underfunding our public education system, we are driving down the relative income of teachers and administrators and thereby making the profession of pedagogy far less attractive to youngsters. Who wants to become a teacher when you have to struggle to pay your rent, and you can’t even afford to live in the very community where your school is located?
“Governments in 25 states have shortchanged public K-12 education by $19 billion over the last decade, with low-tax Republican states guilty of the worst underfunding, a groundbreaking report by the American Federation of Teachers, released today, reveals.”
- “Education Underfunding Tops $19 Billion over Decade of Neglect”, Andrew Crook, American Federation of Teachers, 7/15/18.
The primary reason that our education system is so underfunded is that the politicians who are making the decisions about how to properly allocate public tax dollars are themselves often generational members of elite, privileged, and wealthy subsections of society. As such, they are compelled by learned or willful ignorance, dispassion, greed, racism, and/or corporate or political allegiances to funnel public funds into other questionable sectors, primarily corporate subsidies masked as political decisions, and to reduce taxes on the most wealthy Americans. This creates an oligarchic society where the elite reap the lion’s share of resources, leaving what little remains to the ever dwindling middle class and the poor. It is this disparity of course that has outraged the majority of Americans and that has fomented so much of the progressive political movement’s agenda, especially that of political leaders like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, among so many others.
Contrary to such progressive and populist politics, we see in Trumpian politics a resurgence of 80s elitism, with corporate capture of our nation’s Department of Education which is headed by Betsy Devos, the class action anti-Affirmative Action lawsuit against Harvard University brought ostensibly by Asian American students but allegedly backed by powerful white Americans seeking to increase the number of privileged white students at Harvard, and the 2019 College Admissions Scandal whereby dozens of some of the wealthiest Americans have allegedly been bribing elite college administrators and coaches to ensure their kids’ acceptance into these schools.
Affirmative Action is not racist as its opponents claim, though it is easy to fall for that alluring albeit superficial fallacy. Yes, when deciding among similarly qualified candidates for admission, the policy favors certain students over others based on their ethnicity, gender, or race. But the reason it does so is the entire point that is missed by the policy’s opponents. Affirmative Action exists in order to correct literally centuries of discriminatory action against historically oppressed ethnicities, genders, and races - huge groups of people that have been historically marginalized, discriminated against, and been deprived of their basic human rights from time immemorial until the present day. Women and people of color, for example, continue to experience illegal wage discrimination and employment discrimination. They are grossly under-represented in positions of political, economic, and institutional power. Our very own national Constitution in its original language underscores the historical prejudice faced by women and people of color, and there is an abundance of statistical, empirical, and narrative evidence to prove the continuing nature of this societal evil.
There is simply no other way to combat the deleterious and long-term negative effects of this pandemic of illegal discrimination, particularly in the consequences it has had on the public-at-large’s access to high quality education and the benefits derived therefrom, than through the implementation of Affirmative Action policies. We can’t just wish away the problems of injustice and discrimination. We cannot wait for the poor and middle class to somehow climb the ladder of success, certainly not in the midst of the artificially-created flat-lining of the American economy for everyday Americans.
“[T]he median income of middle-class households in 2016 was about the same as in 2000, a reflection of the lingering effects of the Great Recession and an earlier recession in 2001. The median income of lower-income households in 2016 ($25,624) was less than in 2000 ($26,923). Only the incomes of upper-income households increased from 2000 to 2016, from $183,680 to $187,872.”
- “The American middle class is stable in size, but losing ground financially to upper-income families”, Pew Research Center, 9/6/18.
The bootstrap myth - that people should simply “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” to achieve success rather than lazily complaining about not receiving “handouts” from the government - is commonly used as a retort to Affirmative Action, but after a modicum of analysis it becomes clear that those who have achieved success in society did so because of the privileges bestowed upon them via generational wealth, legislated advantages and subsidies, or their mere skin color or gender (e.g., white men).
“The plummeting admission rates of the very top schools nonetheless leave many of the children of the 9.9 percent facing long odds. But not to worry, junior 9.9 percenters! We’ve created a new range of elite colleges just for you. Thanks to ambitious university administrators and the ever-expanding rankings machine at U.S. News & World Report, 50 colleges are now as selective as Princeton was in 1980, when I applied. The colleges seem to think that piling up rejections makes them special. In fact, it just means that they have collectively opted to deploy their massive, tax-subsidized endowments to replicate privilege rather than fulfill their duty to produce an educated public.”
- “The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy”, Matthew Stewart, The Atlantic, June 2018.
What we must remember when we achieve our seats in the proverbial Ivory Tower is to drop down a ladder and give a hand-up (just like we all received) to the rest of us so that we can all achieve a more perfect society. The 2019 College Admissions Scandal, Trumpian politics, and the Class Action lawsuit against Harvard are just a few examples of people in positions of power allegedly or unapologetically doing the exact opposite: greedily and aggressively striving to keep and increase the immense power and privilege they already possess. If instead more wealthy individuals worked with public non-profit organizations to bring higher quality education to the public, if our politicians created laws that gave the necessary hand-up to the majority of Americans rather than helping put the corporate boot on the neck of everyday people, and if wealthy backers used their funds to sponsor class action lawsuits that fought against the abuse of power and privilege and to counteract the race-to-the-bottom created by deregulation and corporate capture of governmental regulatory bodies, then we would ultimately create a society where Affirmative Action is no longer necessary.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
- The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.