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The other day, I had what felt like an out-of-body experience. At a conference in Boston, I heard former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson — a man who had previously worked very hard to eliminate racial preferences in higher education — describe to a rapt, mostly Republican audience why he had filed a potentially game-changing lawsuit in California on behalf of students of color who were systematically and disproportionately assigned to the most ineffective teachers.

This subject of unequal access to quality teaching has been a priority issue for The Education Trust for more than a decade. No matter how you measure teacher quality — credentials, experience or actual classroom effectiveness — low-income students and students of color are considerably more likely than other students to have teachers on the low end and less likely to have top teachers. And these differences matter: The top quarter of our teachers, in terms of effectiveness, produce as much as six months more learning during an academic year than do teachers in the bottom quarter.

Despite the critical importance of changing these patterns, ours has been a lonely fight, with very little attention to this issue (beyond rhetorical attention, that is) from anybody else.

So to see our slides on the screen behind this longtime opponent of affirmative action — and to hear our words come out of his mouth — was, well, more than a little mind-bending.

I used to run what we then called “student affirmative action” at the University of California system, and have been a strong supporter of race- and class-sensitive college admissions policies ever since. But I believed then the same thing most of my black and Latino friends believed: that young people of color would be a lot better off if we dismantled the deep inequities — especially in K-12 education — that caused racial preferences to be necessary in the first place than if we left those inequities in place and just kept trying somehow to compensate for them with a few special admissions here and there.

In subsequent years, I often wondered what would happen if those who were attacking affirmative action so aggressively spent at least equal energy combating the systemic inequities that kept so many children of color from achieving their potential in the first place and going to the college of their choosing.

I guess now, it is possible that we might find out. And I, for one, welcome the help. After all, to paraphrase President Obama, demanding that our country live up to its promise shouldn’t be a “blue” issue or a “red” issue; it should be an American issue, with all of us playing our part.

So welcome, Ted Olson, to the important issue of fair access to quality teachers. You and David Boies did the country a giant service with your work on marriage equality. I think you could do an equally important service with this work on teacher equity. For as long as we have a large teacher quality gap, we’re going to continue to take the diversity that should be our strategic advantage in the international economy and squander it.

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