Opinion

Why Ketanji Brown Jackson's high school still matters

How a dash of public education makes the ‘right’ kind of Democrat

The day before Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court began, The Washington Post dropped an instantly memeable chart on her educational and professional background.

The career portion is clearly designed for Jackson to snag a perfect score — it doesn't include, for instance, a spot for Justice Elena Kagan's time as solicitor general, a role Jackson hasn't held. Still, the list makes sense and has self-evident relevance to the work Jackson will do if confirmed.

The education portion is another matter. The Post's chart implicitly praises Jackson for having attended a public high school and an Ivy League law school, a combination only three other sitting justices (Kagan, Samuel Alito, and Stephen Breyer, whom Jackson would replace) can claim.

But why is that, specifically, what we should want? Why is it so strongly assumed to be what we should want that the attendant Post article doesn't spare a single word for explanation of how this pairing is the ideal preparation for the Supreme Court? That silence is a fresh reminder of the decidedly awkward class dynamics burbling left of center, where the Democratic Party is stretched — perhaps too far — between its longstanding positioning as the party of the poor and its new reality as the party of Princeton.

Of course, party elites on both sides have long been elite. Ivy League degrees in Washington are nothing new. But for decades, the dominant class trope in American politics was this: Republicans are rich (and therefore generally more educated and privileged) and Democrats are poor (and therefore generally less educated and privileged). And that was roughly accurate — as measured by the voting habits of people with college degrees — from mid-century through the 1990s.

But even then conditions were developing for a new narrative, one in which Republicans are skeptical of the academy, regarding it as a corrupting den of "tenured radicals," while Democrats embrace higher education and want to make it both more radical and more accessible. That's a sensationalized account, but again roughly accurate. The "diploma divide" among voters is real and growing, and the diploma-holders are increasingly Democrats. (Note that, with a Congress more educated than ever, the most prominent member without a high school diploma, let alone a college degree, is a Republican.)

The diploma divide extends to specific academic institutions, too: Democrats are better represented at most elite schools, like the Ivies, and more likely to view them favorably. A 2015 survey of high-ranking elected officials, Cabinet members, and presidential candidates found Democrats were about twice as likely as Republicans to have attended or taught at an elite institution. And a 2018 study run through the Harvard Digital Lab for the Social Sciences showed right-leaning Americans found hypothetical elite-educated politicians "less relatable" and were less likely to vote for them, while those on the left deemed the Ivy grads "more competent" than alternatives from non-elite schools.

What's curious is that — even after all the politically scrambling effects of pandemic rules in public schools — this pattern of Democratic elitism and Republican populism doesn't hold for primary education, at least nowhere near the same extent. Many private schools, especially the more affordable ones, are religious, often Catholic or nondenominational Protestant with an evangelical lean. And to paint in very broad strokes, the Democratic answer to a failing public school is to try to save the school, typically with more funding and in the name of equity, while the Republican approach is to try to save the students, often by taking them and their tax-funded education dollars elsewhere, though this may doom the school left behind. Yes, the Obamas famously sent their kids to an expensive private school in Washington. But they did so under sharp charges of hypocrisy given Democratic education policies, particularly on school vouchers.

Beyond policy, though, there's a cultural element: For a certain vocal strain of progressive parents, sending your "privileged child" to an "underperforming" public school is a matter of ethics and allyship. (A friend of mine once agonized to me that other friends, further left, would judge or even drop her if she put her kid in private school because his public classes simply did not work over COVID Zoom.) Those values don't necessarily hold for college, where career outcomes are more directly on the line. But for high school, to have attended public school is increasingly the Right Thing.

The most cynical part of me wants to say the Right Thing amounts to a sort of class tourism given how allyship no longer seems to be in play when college decisions — let alone LSAT scores — come due. But I've also seen firsthand how picking a public (and perhaps underfunded) school despite being able to afford other options can be a sincere attempt to prioritize the good of the community, not only one's own child.

I appreciate that impulse, but I still see a tension there, an uncomfortable class dynamic that reflects Democrats' larger quandary of how to hold together constituencies with very disparate places in America's messy interplay of class, income, and education. It's not impossible for the party of the ultra-wealthy and most highly educated to also be the party of the poor — in fact, that's where Democrats find themselves now (and in some times past: With presidents like Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK, the Democratic party trick was selling leadership by the top of the uppercrust with a sense of noblesse oblige). But especially amid ever-greater emphases on equity and social justice, this does lead to some odd arrangements, like party leadership packed with Ivy League degrees (the 2020 Biden-Harris ticket was a rare anomaly in that regard) and studded with enormous personal wealth speaking for people whose experience of America is as far as possible from their own.

Republicans — whose comparative homogeneity and different cultural and policy agenda let them avoid much of the same tension — have certainly noticed that quandary and, newfound populism in hand, will no doubt make use of it this fall and for many elections to come. And as for the Post chart, it's no coincidence the paper's primary audience is well-educated, well-off progressives, exactly the sort who would seriously consider a high school choice based on allyship. The value of the public-to-Ivy path didn't need to be explained. Everyone knows it's right for them and right for SCOTUS.

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