03/11/2015 12:14 pm ET Updated May 11, 2015

Let Them Eat Charters

Boston Globe via Getty Images

Will Massachusetts reduce its public school system to crumbs?

The rich are different from you and me, reader. For one thing, they are rich, which means that when passion strikes they can forget, for a moment, their billable hours and labor for free. It's called pro bono, and it is Roman for *charter schools are great.* I am alluding, of course, to the new news that three of Boston's whitest white shoe law firms, WilmerHale, Goodwin Procter LLP and FoleyHoag LLP, are joining forces for the kids, for free. What makes this new news even newsier is that the three firms have long been fierce rivals in the battle to ensure that no litigation is left unlitigated. Why it's like that time that crew-sters from Harvard, Yale AND Princeton all climbed into a single shell and rowed down the Charles together!

Old bucks 4 new schools
No doubt you have many questions about the pro bono-ists' civil-rights-based challenge to the state's cap on the number of charter schools. Such as *from whence does the expression white shoe law firm come?* As always, I am happy to shed light. You see the phrase derives from *white bucks,* laced suede or buckskin shoes with a red sole, long popular in the sorts of Ivy League colleges that our pro bono-ists no doubt attended. What? You want to know how it is that civil rights can be used to argue for more charter schools, when, according to a growing body of case law, students in charter schools don't actually have civil rights? Or how, in the course of four decades, *civil rights* could go from a fierce battle over desegregating schools and diversifying the teaching force to the right of students to attend more segregated schools and be taught by young, mostly white teachers? Or why our pro bono-ists seem so charmingly ill-informed, not just about the state's charter schools, but about all of the schools that are publicly attended? All mere trifles, reader.

A civil affair
While the constitutional challenge to the charter cap has yet to make its official debut, it gets underway unofficially this week with the hottest ticket in town: the annual charter school lottery. Our pro bono-ists will identify a handful of lottery losers, invite them to become plaintiffs, then introduce them to the press, Vergara-style. Of course, the bold plan is not without its challenges. Like getting past that *awkward* bit about the plaintiffs being denied access to *high-performing seats* that have no students in them because of the charter lobby's staunch position against *backfilling.* Also, probably best to avoid including a would-be 9th grade boy in the plaintiff pool, as he turns out to have about as much chance of graduating from a Boston charter high school, going to college and completing college as he does of winning the actual lottery. But I digress. Did someone mention Harvard?

An even more civil affair
But the big question regarding the case isn't who the plaintiffs will be, but at whom the case will be directed. Will it be the state's new governor, Chas D. Baker, who ran for office on a campaign to lift the charter cap? Or will it be the new Secretary of Education, James Peyser, who we last encountered explaining to Boston's charitable set that only by making charter schools themselves a more potent political force could said charter cap at last be lifted. Now to be fair, Peyser didn't actually suggest that charter advocates might assemble a team of legal *rivals,* file a suit in the name of civil rights and name him as defendant. One imagines that that idea came later, at the yacht club perchance, over a round of G & Ts after a friendly tennis match or a race around the harbor on the Ensigns. The point is, dear reader, that the civil rights battle of our time is shaping up to be an extraordinarily *civil* affair...

In which we hear from some actual students
Meanwhile, far from the Brahmin sanctums of WilmerHale, Goodwin Procter and FoleyHoag, some voices that actually appeared to know something about public education made themselves heard this week. The occasion was a hearing of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, charged with examining the state of school financing in Massachusetts. This week's gathering, a usually staid affair, featured droves of students from across the city testifying about the appalling conditions of their schools. Like expired milk in the cafeteria, four students sharing a single text book, bathrooms that don't work, computer labs that still run Windows 98, and 400 students sharing a single guidance councilor. The most powerful testimony came from students who talked about the *plague of failing* in the Boston schools, and described the deterioriation of their own schools after being relocated into *failing* spaces. *Why are schools in Newton so much nicer than our schools?* asked a parent who testified, quoting a question put to them by her own child. Good question, Boston Public Schools student. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, you have just asked what we might call a *civil rights* question. Anyone know where these kids can find a lawyer or three?