Not Just a Bill


A surreal debate is playing out on Capitol Hill over a proposed expansion of the GI Bill of Rights.    Bi-partisan coalitions in the House and Senate want to increase college support under the law to give a new, promising start to veterans who've served at least three years in the military.  President Bush and John McCain oppose the bill, ostensibly on the ground that it would motivate too many soldiers to seek college over re-enlistment.  But the Congressional Budget Office estimates that an augmented GI Bill would increase the number of new recruits by about the same amount that it would coax out of the armed forces.

So what's really going on?  The GI Bill is not just a bill.  Through its values, its language, its history and impact, it embodies a profoundly progressive vision of opportunity, linked to a populist form of patriotism.  That combination is especially threatening to the conservative elite.

First, it's a "bill of rights"--a phrase and idea that derive from our most cherished constitutional foundation.  The bill conveys not benefits or privileges, but rights that veterans hold by virtue of their service to our country.

Second, it's an economic bill of rights, tied to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's vision of a "Second Bill of Rights" for all Americans that included not only "the right to a good education," but also "the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;...the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; the right of every family to a decent home;...the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; [and] the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment...."

That vision connects us to internationally-recognized economic and social human rights, embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that recognizes a similar range of economic and social rights, as well as civil and political rights like the right to freedom of speech and religion.  While the United States, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, helped to craft and elevate the Universal Declaration at the end of World War II, presidential administrations of both parties have largely opposed the notion of economic and social human rights since the start of the Cold War.  Polling by The Opportunity Agenda shows that large majorities of Americans, however, recognize and support the economic rights that the Roosevelts worked to advance.

Fourth, the history and impact of the original GI Bill of Rights demonstrate how expanding opportunity advances our national interests and the common good.  The GI Bill helped an entire generation of Americans--and America itself--to take a giant leap toward shared prosperity.  It instigated a wave of ingenuity, innovation, entrepreneurship, productivity, and mobility from which our country continues to benefit sixty years later.

Finally, expanding the Bill of Rights today will make plain the connection between those progressive ideals and the men and women now serving in our military--a connection that conservatives have successfully undermined (often with progressive assistance) since the days of the Vietnam War.

The original GI Bill of Rights was almost defeated by Southern conservative lawmakers, Democrats, who opposed higher education and economic mobility for returning African-American veterans.  Today, conservatives' objections may be expressed differently, but they rest on similarly ideological grounds.  Today, as in 1944, the GI Bill is not just a bill.

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Moving Forward from the Supreme Court's School Cases

Written by Alan Jenkins, Executive Director of The Opportunity Agenda. Alan was previously the Assistant to the Solicitor General at the U.S. Department of Justice, where he represented the United States government in constitutional and other litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior to that, he was Associate Counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and Law Clerk to Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

Much of the news reporting on the Supreme Court's school diversity cases has gotten it wrong, describing the outcome as a 5-to-4 opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts against voluntary school integration.  In fact, the outcome of these cases was a 4-to-1-to-4 decision in which Justice Anthony Kennedy (the "1") controlled the outcome and wrote a mixed opinion with both positive and negative implications for the future of diversity and our Constitution.

Justice Kennedy voted with Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas to strike down the specific policies used by the Louisville and Seattle school districts, but also agreed with Justices Souter, Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer that educational diversity and combating segregation are compelling governmental interests that governments may pursue through careful efforts that consider race.
Justice Kennedy ruled, for example:

  •    "If school authorities are concerned that the student-body compositions of certain schools interfere with the objective of offering an equal educational opportunity to all of their students, they are free to devise race-conscious measures to address the problem in a general way and without treating each student in different fashion solely on the basis of a systematic, individual typing by race." (p.8).
  •    "In the administration of public schools by the state and local authorities it is permissible to consider the racial makeup of schools and to adopt general policies to encourage a diverse student body, one aspect of which is its racial composition." (p.8)

Justice Kennedy (and therefore a majority of the Court) firmly rejected Chief Justice Roberts' position that considering race in a careful way to promote inclusion inflicts the same constitutional harm as the hateful segregation laws that Brown v. Board of Education began to overturn.  Kennedy's opinion says, "[t]he enduring hope is that race should not matter; the reality is that it too often does," and notes that "as an aspiration, Justice Harlan's axiom [that our Constitution is "colorblind"] must command our assent.  In the real world, it is regrettable to say, it cannot be a universal constitutional principle."

What Justice Kennedy (and, therefore, the Court) says is unconstitutional is considering the race of individual students in determining their school assignment.  That element, and the inexact details of the particular Seattle and Louisville plans, Kennedy said, made those programs insufficiently narrow in their tailoring to meet constitutional muster.

According to most educators and advocates concerned about promoting diversity and inclusion, Justice Kennedy "gets it"; he just doesn't get how hard it is.  In other words, he understands and articulates well why integration is so important to equal educational opportunity, and to the future of our nation.  But he fails to see why achieving it sometimes requires attention to the details of student assignment.  Research and practical experience show that considering broad demographic trends in school attendance policy is necessary, but not always sufficient, to fostering diverse and inclusive schools.

So the Court's ruling will no doubt make it harder to bring our kids together across lines of difference.  Yet it's very important to acknowledge the remarkable victory for the principles of integration, inclusion and diversity, which a majority of the Court strongly embraced yesterday.

So now that consideration of individual student characteristics in school assignment is off the table in the K-12 voluntary integration context, what can schools, policymakers, parents and their children do to promote the vision of inclusion that a majority of the Court endorsed?

Justice Kennedy's opinion makes clear that numerous options do remain, many of which include explicit consideration of race.  His opinion says: "School boards may pursue the goal of bringing together students of diverse backgrounds and races through other means, including strategic site selection of new schools; drawing attendance zones with general recognition of the demographics of neighborhoods; allocating resources for special programs; recruiting students and faculty in a targeted fashion; and tracking enrollments, performance, and other statistics by race."

Educators and civil advocates are already hard at work to craft innovative approaches within the Court's parameters that work on the ground.

In addition, a number of civil rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, still require schools to avoid segregation or exclusion of students by race.   The Bush Administration has an atrocious record of enforcing those laws, and yesterday's decision should be an impetus to push for change.   Certainly the next president should make it a priority.

Congress, too, has an important role to play in promoting inclusion and combating segregation in the wake of yesterday's decision.  For example, Congress should allocate significant resources for communities that want to pursue diversity efforts in line with the Court's ruling.  Federal support for school construction and expansion should depend, in part, on whether school locations and attendance zones will foster or stymie integration.

And, of course, the U.S. Senate must give far greater scrutiny of judicial nominees than it has done to date.  It's deeply disturbing that four members of the Court--including the two newest members (Roberts and Alito) nominated by President Bush--would have outlawed almost all effective efforts to promote inclusion in our nation's schools.  And their view that the modest voluntary integration efforts at issue in these cases are constitutionally tantamount to Jim Crow-era segregation is nothing short of outrageous.

While a majority of the Court correctly rejected that extreme position, the Chief Justice's opinion--joined by Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas--fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of our Constitution and highlights the importance of exacting questioning of the President's judicial nominations by the U.S. Senate.  Flawed as Justice Kennedy's opinion is on this subject, it's worth noting that, if not for the rigorous questioning and consideration of President Reagan's Supreme Court nominee 20 years ago, Robert Bork would have been the fifth conservative vote in this and many other decisions, instead of Justice Kennedy.

Additional details regarding the decisions may be found at www.naacpldf.org and www.civilrights.org.

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The Door to Diversity Remains Open

Cross posted at The State of Opportunity - a blog about human rights and the American Dream.  Written by Robert Watts.

The decision today should not prevent school districts from continuing the important work of bringing together students of different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds -- Justice Anthony Kennedy

The good news is that five members of the U.S. Supreme Court have affirmed that there is a compelling government interest in creating diverse public schools.  It's now up to parents, community leaders, members of Congress and supporters of diversity to figure out how to redesign, rethink and tweak programs aimed at creating diverse classes and schools.

Today's Supreme Court decision striking down integration plans in Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky was surely disappointing.  But the ruling does not close the door to diversity or considerations of race.

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A Framework for Progressive Values

For years now, progressives have lamented the apparent monopoly that the Right has on framing the public debate.  There have been a variety of attempts to remedy this situation, from books like George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant, to blogs like Jeffrey Feldman's Frame Shop.  This is an important discussion, and vital to the future success of progressive ideas.  At The Opportunity Agenda we'd like to offer our own contribution to this effort.

We have outlined a frame that we believe can promote progressive ideas and recapture our national values discussion from the Right.  We call it the Opportunity Frame.  In collaboration with The SPIN Project, we have produced a communications toolkit that outlines this frame and provides concrete tools and case studies to help implement it.  Click here to read American Opportunity: A Communications Toolkit, or continue reading about this frame and take our poll after the jump.

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