In Memoriam: Dr. Charles V. Willie by Michael J. Alves w/ Reflections from John Brittain & Richard Kahlenberg

My dear friend and colleague, Dr. Charles V. Willie, the Charles Eliot Professor Emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a champion of equitable school desegregation, passed away on January 11, 2021, at the age of 94. As documented in his recent obituary in the Boston Globe, Chuck’s life was filled with extraordinary accomplishments and his “unconditional” love for his family, students, and even those fellow scholars and desegregation experts who did not always agree with him.

Chuck’s commitment to “justice and equality” was rooted and instilled by his parents during his upbringing in the segregated city of Dallas Texas. Chuck was also greatly influenced by his friend and classmate at Morehouse College, Martin Luther King. And Chuck carried his passion and faith for justice into the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church when he championed the righteous cause of the church ordaining women priests.

My decision to ask Dr. Willie to be my advisor was based on his longstanding belief and commitment to desegregation and his real experience as a desegregation activist and staunch advocate for justice and fairness that included his service as a court-appointed Master by Judge Arthur W. Garrity in the Boston desegregation case. Chuck’s role as a Master in the Boston case and his advocacy for magnet schools along with his fellow Master Francis Kepple who was a former Dean at HGSE and President Kennedy’s U.S. Commissioner of Education, helped to inspire the creation of the Cambridge choice plan which sought to make all schools magnetic desegregating schools of choice.

Under the Cambridge Plan, the District abolished all of its school attendance boundaries and made all of its thirteen K-8 schools desegregating schools of choice. The most controversial elements of the Plan were instituting universal public school choice and allowing all the students that would be enrolled in grades 1-8 the following school year to remain in their assigned schools with only the newly enrolling Kindergarten and students seeking to voluntary transfer subject to desegregation, which was defined as a +/- 5% white and racial minority variance from the District as a whole. This so-called “grandfathering” provision was a key element in the Plan that defused community conflict and preempted the kind of white and middle-class flight that plagued the Boston Public Schools.

Despite the universal choice plan’s success in Cambridge, there was considerable doubt among civil rights lawyers and desegregation experts that such a student assignment plan would ever work elsewhere given the fact that Cambridge, Massachusetts was perceived as an ultra-liberal city of just 6 square miles with only one high school and thirteen K-8 grammar schools that had a pro-desegregation State Department of Education.

My professional collaboration with Dr. Willie as co-desegregation planners officially began in 1985 when we designed what we called a “controlled choice” student assignment plan for the Plaintiffs in the San Jose federal desegregation case that was based primarily on the Cambridge choice plan. The challenge in San Jose was the geographic size and elongated configuration of the District that enrolled nearly 30,000 students from grades K-12 in six high schools, seven middle schools, and 23 elementary schools, which was demonstrably different from Cambridge.

In response to these challenges, we subdivided the San Jose Unified School District into three contiguous and demographically equivalent K-12 school choice attendance zones with five districtwide magnet schools. The plan grandfathered students into their assigned schools and required that all newly enrolling students in Kindergarten, Grade 6, and Grade 9, which were the entry-grades for the Districts’ elementary, middle, and high schools, and students seeking to transfer to another school be assigned to a desegregating school of choice in their zone or to a districtwide magnet school. Parents could select at least three schools by ranked preference and all assignments would be made to achieve a +/- 5% desegregation variance. The plan was approved by the federal court and later enabled the District to achieve unitary status.

The success of the San Jose “controlled choice” plan launched a 25-year collaboration between Willie and Alves as co-desegregation planners that resulted in the development of race-conscious, controlled-choice desegregation and school improvement plans in numerous school districts throughout the United States including Little Rock AK, Seattle WA, Boston MA, St. Lucie FL, Milwaukee WI, Lee County FL, Brockton MA, and Rockford IL. Our journey also included an innovative socioeconomic desegregation plan for Charleston SC and the honor of serving as the original desegregation planning experts for John Britain and his legal team in the Sheff inter-district magnet schools state desegregation case in Connecticut.

Together we authored two books: Controlled Choice: A New Approach to Desegregated Education and School Improvement in 1996 and Student Diversity, Choice, and School Improvement in 2002 with our colleague Ralph Edwards as well as numerous reports and journal articles. While Dr. Willie achieved a great legacy in promoting desegregation plans that were simultaneously effective, fair, and educationally sound and he was a true believer in the power of unconditional love, he was exasperated by the Supreme Court’s gutting of our race-conscious controlled choice in Seattle in 2008, twenty-two years after it was voluntarily approved and successfully implemented. He was equally exasperated when a new Mayoral appointed Boston School Committee effectively dismantled our inherently fair and educationally progressive controlled choice plan in 2001.

Despite these setbacks, the legacy of Charles Willie will live on for the believers in justice and fairness for all school children and their families. Although the Supreme Court has attempted to undermine Chuck’s advocacy for racial desegregation, his legacy lives on through the development of racially desegregative multifaceted controlled choice socioeconomic student assignment plans that are currently being implemented throughout the country that include the new Sheff multifaceted socioeconomic inter-district student desegregation plan that is being implemented in Connecticut.

Finally on a personal note, I will always remember the true essence of Charles Willie when he sang the iconic song Nature Boy as a blessing for me and my wife Ann at our wedding with the eternally true final lyric “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

Godspeed, dear friend.


John C. Brittain: As a law professor and civil rights lawyer who worked with Dr. Charles “Chuck” Willie as an expert in school desegregation cases, including the Connecticut landmark Sheff v. O’Neill case where Dr. Willie testified in the trial, I highly applaud his tremendous achievements in school equality. However, I choose to honor the legacy of Dr. Willie who fought for equality in The Episcopal Church.

As an African American, I grew up in a high Episcopal Church in Norwalk, Connecticut serving as an acolyte and thurifer who swung the canister filled with smoke from burning incense during services. The churches were nearly all-White throughout the New England states. However, during my matriculation at Howard University from 1962 (BA) to 1969 (JD), I learned to appreciate the civil rights struggle within the Episcopal Church featuring Reverend Pauli Murray, the first ordained Black female priest in 1977, whom I first met at Howard Law School, and Reverend Quinland Gordon, a Black office holder on the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, who married my wife and I.

The work of Dr. Willie and many Episcopalians paved the way to The Episcopal Church to elect Michael Curry, the first African American presiding bishop in 2015. May God bless you, Chuck.

Richard Kahlenberg: Chuck Willie always believed in his bones that the cause of racial and economic school desegregation is just. And because it is just, he thought it was incumbent on everyone to figure out ways to make it a reality by reducing political opposition. Willie and his colleague Michael Alves came up with a brilliant answer to the unpopularity of compulsory bussing: marry the attractive idea of public school choice to equity goals. Thousands of school children are better off because of this shrewd innovation and many more will be if additional school districts adopt their approach.

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