Activist Attorney Calls for ‘Militant’ Action Against Injustices in Public Education

Washington – Young students are best suited to wage the battle for public education—and against the expansion of charter schools—and large-scale integration of the nation’s public schools should be a paramount goal in the fight.

Those were the major arguments advanced over the weekend by Shanta Driver, an activist attorney who played a pivotal role in the 2003 Supreme Court case that upheld race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions.

“We’ve found that everywhere that we’ve organized as a national organization that the group of people that are most prepared to fight for public education, for advancing desegregation in public education and against charter schools are students themselves,” said Driver, national chair and spokesperson for the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigrant Rights & Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary, more commonly known as BAMN.

In a roughly hour-long talk that touched on topics that ranged from what she portrayed as racial pitfalls in standardized tests to the “arrogance” of philanthropists involved in education reform, Driver made her remarks at the 2012 Save Our Schools People’s Education Convention. The conference drew more than 100 public school educators and largely opposed charter schools and tying the testing regime to teacher and student evaluations.

Driver called for getting children involved in “militant” protests to fight racism, inequalities and unfairness in the public schools.

“They’re the least jaded,” Driver said. “It’s their lives that are on the line, and they are fearless in conducting walkouts and marches and rallies in defense of public education.”

After Driver stated that mobilizing students was the best way to mobilize their parents, a Diverse reporter asked Driver what she would say to critics who believe it’s wrongheaded for public school educators to politicize children to support their agenda and to oppose charter schools, which are regarded by many as being as much about liberation as those who share her ideology.

In response, Driver only deepened her stance against charter schools and her defense of using children to lead the anti-charter school movement.

“They have brains. They know what is good. They know schools that regiment you,” Driver said in a litany in which she railed against charter schools that “stick someone in school for 11 months” out of the year.

“If they were White students they’d get trips to Europe and camps,” Driver said.

Later, in an interview, Driver cited the Children’s Crusade of 1963 as a worthy precedent from the Civil Rights Movement for putting students on the front lines of the battle for public education.

In the Children’s Crusade, which took place in Birmingham, Ala., Black youths from area schools—recruited by lieutenants of Dr. Martin Luther King—served as civil rights demonstrators. Many were subsequently jailed and endured brutal blasts from water cannons and police dog attacks.

“We never would have had civil rights if not for the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Ala.,” Driver said in defense of the tactic of using children to protest. “Without the youth we never would have won.”

She acknowledged that youth could be organized to rally for charter schools, too.

“If they believe they’re getting a good education, they’re going to be persuaded to support whoever it is that’s providing that or offering that,” Driver said. “I think political debate among youth is great. I think discussion of what works, what doesn’t is very powerful.”

Driver—who is credited as the legal architect of the successful student intervention into Grutter v Bollinger, the University of Michigan Law School affirmative action case in which race conscious-affirmative action was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003—weighed in on the pending University of Texas case in which the Supreme Court will once again take up the use of race in college admissions.

She agreed with observers who’ve said the case has not prompted the same sense of urgency as the Grutter case. She said affirmative action in higher education has suffered setbacks despite the legal victory.

“We won the Grutter case and everybody treated it like a loss,” Driver lamented. “There were more affirmative action programs that were eliminated after that victory.”

She blamed the economic downturn and said businesses are not as interested in affirmative action as they were in years past.

“They’re not pressing for it,” Driver said. “But I also think that the universities, even public universities, have become more reliant on private money.”

She criticized philanthropists Bill Gates and Eli Broad for their efforts to reshape public education.

“How the hell did they think they know anything about public education?” Driver said during her remarks. “Just because you’re rich you get to do whatever.”

Both the Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation support, among other things, expansion of the use of technology in the classroom and charter schools. Driver says Gates, the chairman of software giant Microsoft, wants more technology in the classroom to further his own corporate interests.

Driver also took aim at affluent White alumni that she characterized as being against diversity.

“I think there are a lot of alumni that want the university to look like the place they were at,” Driver said. “They want to go back to a much more White campus … just making it more of a place where alumni children and rich kids are given priority in admissions.

“That’s changed the attitude of a lot of university administrators. They feel so dependent on those alumni donors and private sector donors to fund public education now.”