There is nothing that brings our nation together like a wee bit of comeuppance. This week even Fox News and CNN stood on the same platform of moral outrage at the college admissions scandal that the FBI cheekily dubbed ’Operation Varsity Blues.’ Fifty people have been indicted for fraudulently getting kids-of-the-wealthy into prestigious universities and we are deep in righteous indignation.
Much like the 2017 tiki-torch-bearing hate march in Charlottesville, Operation Varsity Blues provides a place to put some national reckoning. White Supremacy carries a tiki torch. Wealth, connections and a little pole-vault-photoshopping admits you to college.
But both the hate march and the college admissions crimes are events, episodes of depravity that easily distract us from structures and processes of inequity. We busy ourselves by labeling the marchers as racist without attending to racialized systems of oppression. While we shame the celebrities who got pinched, we look away from the routine ways that opportunities are hoarded in our public educational system. We love the egregious for giving us cover from the everyday.
From my roof, I can see a few public elementary schools. One of them rakes in upwards of $500k in PTA funds annually while the others average under $10k. One of them serves 44% white and 17% economically disadvantaged students and the others serve fewer than 3% white and greater than 85% economically disadvantaged students. One of them has a statewide ranking of 9; the others rank 4 or below. No one is getting indicted or publicly shamed.
And then there are stories like this, in which a wealthy district with declining enrollment decides to fill up their classrooms not with students from adjacent, less-affluent districts but by only admitting grandchildren of the wealthy district residents. Or this research from EdBuild showing that white school districts receive 23 billion dollars more in funding than districts that predominantly serve global-majority students; white school districts receives $2,226 more for every student enrolled than a global-majority district. No one is getting indicted or publicly shamed.
We are incensed that the wealthy are not playing by the rules, but what of the rules themselves?
Felicity Huffman and her buddies’ kids might have taken my kid’s spot at Yale (well, not mine, but metaphorically speaking…); the rich are gaming the system to benefit their own. But chances are… so are many of us. When those of us with privilege buy a house in a “good” school zone, when those of us with the know-how wield it to get access to a “better” school rather than attend our neighborhood school, when those of us who already have a lot enroll in special programs that disproportionately serve privileged kids, when those of us who have the opportunity to insulate our schools from budget cuts raise fat booster-club cash, when those of us with the loudest and most-listened-to voices push for policies that benefit our kids at the expense of other children, we are gaming the public system too.
But instead of indictments or public shame, we high-five each other for being “good parents.”
Perhaps Operation Varsity Blues can be a point of departure rather than a commotion of pique. We don’t want the rich kids winning a dirty game, should we want ours to?