Mike Johnston's Modest Proposal

09/28/2010 04:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At a conference at the Aspen Institute in mid-September, Colorado state Sen. Mike Johnston gave one of the most heartfelt and persuasive speeches I've heard in a long while. Perhaps it struck me as so brilliant because I already agreed with everything he said.

But I think there is more to it than that. So I'm embedding the full in two parts at the end of this post. Or you can follow these links to view it: Part I, Part II.

It's about 19 minutes long. Please watch it and send me your thoughts.

Johnston made several powerful points. But one in particular has stuck with me in the 10 days since the conference ended. He said that people who oppose inner-city charter schools use one argument that seems particularly - though probably unintentionally - cynical: That allowing the most motivated low-income families and children to flee bad urban schools for charters amounts to unacceptable brain drain.

The kids who remain behind, these folks argue, are the children of less motivated parents, or those who could not handle the firm discipline policies and tough rules that govern some charters.

There's a major flaw in that argument, Johnston said. After all, massive brain drain has been occurring for decades, since long before charters entered the picture. Some families with money send their kids to private schools. Others move to the suburbs, in part to avoid urban public schools.

So why is, it, Johnston asked, that when charters come along aiming to provide low-income kids with options that rival those rich kids enjoy, self-appointed defenders of the rights of the poor shout "Whoa, whoa, whoa, stop! This is now too much brain drain!"

And then Johnston made an audacious proposal, one which I'm sure he knows could never come to fruition. If you want to deprive poor kids of choice, he said, then there's another way to level the playing field. Overturn two seminal U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The first decision that would have to go, he said, is Pierce v. Society of Sisters, from 1925. An Oregon law slated to go into effect in 1926 would have required all the state's schoolchildren to attend public schools (some people at the time believed parochial schools hindered Catholic assimilation). The Supreme Court found that the Oregon law violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

The second decision, Milliken v. Bradley (1974), is regarded by school integrationists as one of the court's low points. In that decision, justices ruled that school integration plans could not cross district boundaries. This exempted suburban districts from participating in court-ordered desegregation plans. It made the world safe for white flight.

So, Johnston suggested, people who believe that inner-city charters create unacceptable brain drain might want to turn their efforts instead to overturning those two Supreme Court decisions.

"If you want to go all in in one direction and make public schools the melting pots for America, I'm all in," Johnston concluded. "No one can go to private school, all districts are integrated, and everyone goes together. If not, then poor folks ought to be able to leverage their social resources to find good options for their kids, just as middle-class and upper-middle class kids do."

Johnston's talk has dovetailed in my mind with something school choice crusader Howard Fuller said late last year during a visit to Denver. He said he belonged to the "Harriet Tubman school of education reform." Tubman surely wanted an end to slavery, Fuller said. But she didn't sit around waiting for slavery to end. She took action, and risked her life to get individual slaves out of bondage and into new lives as free men and women.

School reform is at that point, Fuller said. We all want public schools to improve. But it would be foolhardy to sit back and wait for that to happen. Each kid anyone can get out of a failing school and into a successful one is another kid with a chance to realize his or her potential. Who knows which of those kids might be the next Nelson Mandela or Jonas Salk or Mother Theresa?

I find it a source of constant amazement that it's mostly people on the left who have positioned themselves on the wrong side of this civil rights struggle. We live in through-the-looking-glass times, don't we?

Johnston ended his talk by pointing out a banner that waved in the autumn breezes outside the conference center. It carried a quote from Victor Hugo:

All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.

Part I:

Part II: