What Ruth Bader Ginsburg Taught Us About Inclusion and Opportunity

Originally published by RealClearEducation – October 8, 2020

She’s often referred to as a trailblazing pioneer and a “groundbreaking” leader. Some have called her “one of the most influential figures for constitutional change in American history.” There’s no question that the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg certainly earned and deserved these, and many other, notable distinctions. However, one of the indelible legacies that we often overlook is the one she left on education.

As an attorney, I’ve seen the many complex ways in which justice and the legal system have eluded communities of color. I’ve also seen how they’ve molded our education system—for better and for worse. As the country mourns Justice Ginsburg’s death and grieves the loss of one of the greatest legal minds we’ve ever learned from, we must continue to honor her legacy of inclusion and opportunity. More specifically, during this unprecedented time amid the ongoing pandemic, we can and should use digital tools like online learning to help bridge our country’s stubborn achievement gap.

When I talk about Justice Ginsburg’s larger-than-life impact on education, I don’t mean “education” in the traditional sense of reading, writing, and arithmetic. I’m referring to our country’s unforgiving, myriad of ways in which we’ve—directly and indirectly—treated those deemed worthy of high-quality education and work experiences and the ones we treat as unworthy.

Theoretically, a student’s zip code or background shouldn’t determine the kind of life he or she ultimately leads. In reality this isn’t the case. More than six million teenagers and young adults in the U.S. “are neither in school nor in the workforce.” This number is particularly acute in low-income communities. And this is a challenge that’s costing all taxpayers more than $1 trillion per year.

Online learning can help address this issue by providing access to specialized courses and academic resources that aren’t available in a student’s local school or region. Through online seminar and workshop opportunities, students can connect with professionals who work in career fields they’ve never even heard of or that aren’t available where they live or grew up. By making a concerted—albeit virtual—effort to show students what’s possible and what they can become, we can truly change the trajectory of their lives and address historic socioeconomic inequities, too.

I myself have lived this experience. When my grandmother was growing up, the “separate but equal” doctrine meant that “poor quality and inadequate funding continued to characterize…schools for black children.” Two generations later, I was fortunate to have access to great schools and incredible teachers who believed in me, but many students who lived just a few miles away suffered staggering rates of illiteracy.

These differences, of course, had nothing to do with aptitude or potential for greatness. Rather, they had everything to do with a system and a culture that decided most Black students weren’t worthy of academic opportunity or the upward mobility that comes with it. Online learning gives us a very real chance to reach our most underserved students and can help ensure we don’t keep making the same dire mistakes over and over again.

Justice Ginsburg understood this principle more than most. As she explained during an interview with renowned author and scholar Jeffrey Rosen, she “was one of nine women in an entering class of over 500” when she enrolled in law school. Despite stellar legal training and performance at Harvard Law School and graduating at the top of her class from Columbia University’s Law School, she could not find a job in the private sector, because she was “A, a woman, B, a mother, and C, Jewish.

Though I don’t share these identities with Justice Ginsburg, I can certainly relate to being dismissed, discounted, and underestimated because of my background, how I was raised, what I look like, or all three. Her story reminds us that thousands of brilliant people—including Black people, women, and members of other underrepresented groups have historically been left behind. It’s up to us to make sure history stops repeating itself.

These are complex challenges I describe, and online learning won’t solve all of them. But we can use tools like online education to help level the playing field and ensure more of our country’s students are getting the resources they need to thrive—in the classroom and throughout their lives. Thankfully, Justice Ginsburg’s teachings will continue to endure and through her speeches, statements, and legal assertions, we should be reminded that everyone is deserving of opportunity. And each of us—parents, school leaders, administrators, and corporate partners—have a responsibility to ensure that classrooms are safe and inclusive environments that celebrate the diverse experiences of every student and encourage them to succeed.

As Justice Ginsburg explained, “In my long life, I have seen many changes. Changes for the better. The most important is that we are now using the talent of all of the people, not just half of them.” Although our country is facing serious challenges, our communities show that when we come together to support young people, the marginalized, and the forgotten, our shared future can be brighter than our past. It’s vital that students feel respected, listened to, seen, and supported. And perhaps now more than ever, it is critical that we work together to provide a comforting space in which they know they belong and deserve to be the person they strive to be.

Kevin P. Chavous, a former District of Columbia City Council member, is an attorney, author, education reform activist, and President of Academics, Policy, and Schools at K12 Inc. Kevin is also a commissioner of the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission.

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