Lessons from 25 Years of Education Reform Litigation

He is a pioneer lawyer of 25 years in education reform litigation around the country, defending private and public school choice from Milwaukee to Arizona.


Today Clint Bolick (pictured right with Renita Thukral, National Alliance seminar co-host) is a newly-appointed Justice on the Arizona Supreme Court. And his conversation with attendees of the legal seminar of the Alliance of Public Charter School Attorneys last week in Phoenix, Arizona, was an inspiring highlight for me.

While I am not a supporter of private school vouchers, his lessons learned from his 12-year litigation journey to the US Supreme Court in support of the Milwaukee voucher program, as well as his other cases defending chartering and public school choice, are universal. Here are his four lessons from the battlefront:

Kids need to be Front and Center in Any Litigation Strategy. It is their constitutional rights at issue. It is important to feature the equities powerfully. During the Milwaukee case, the voucher supporters brought a busload of children and families to a courtroom during an unusual Saturday hearing. A judge later told Bolick that she wanted to find a way to rule in favor of the children every time she looked into their eyes.

State Constitutions Matter a Great Deal. Look to the state constitution as a source of sustenance for your strategy. Rarely does the court get to the First Amendment issue.

Argue in the Court of Public Opinion. It is essential to educate the public as well as the court. There has to be a counterargument against “hurting public schools.” A large public relations campaign was key throughout the 12-year Milwaukee voucher case to influence the public, as well as the deciding Supreme Court vote, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Strength Exists in Unity. The education reform movement often splinters. We need to speak with one voice. We all face a common adversary–the status quo.

Today, family members of the Justice attend BASIS charter school in Phoenix. His advice during his BASIS Commencement speech? “You need to be a soldier, not just a teacher.”

And his advice to the lawyers in the room? “You are today’s fighters for civil rights….We don’t do enough to celebrate our victories and all the children who benefit from a good education. Take stock at how far we’ve come.”

Good advice, particularly as chartering celebrates its 25th anniversary during National Charter Schools Week!