Margie Wakelin

Year of Graduation: 
Margie Wakelin

"There’s no reason that students who attend schools in low-wealth communities should not be able to obtain an adequate education."

For Margie Wakelin ’97, a reading assignment in an Exeter religion class her senior year was the springboard to her life’s work. The book: Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, a striking 1991 analysis of the U.S. education system’s race- and economic-based disparities. “Sitting in this beautiful room around a Harkness table, reflecting on schools in Detroit and Chicago where there were massive [water] leaks and books that weren’t in any way teaching contemporary education, was the first time I had looked at that,” Wakelin, a Maine native, recalls. “And I thought, OK, we need to do better.”

And she has. Today, Wakelin is senior attorney in the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, where she played a pivotal role in the 2023 overhaul of Pennsylvania’s approach to school funding. In a landmark fair-funding case against the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the ELC asserted that legislators, education officials and the governor had violated the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education. The state, they argued, should ensure that all students have the opportunity to meet its rigorous educational standards.

“We also said that it violated the equal protection clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution because there’s no reason that students who attend schools in low-wealth communities should not be able to obtain an adequate education in comparison to their peers who are in either high-wealth or not-low-wealth school districts,” Wakelin says. A 786-page decision on the heels of a four-month trial made it clear that the Commonwealth Court (one of the state’s two intermediate appellate courts) concurred.

Wakelin has long sought ways to help others. At Exeter, she was an active member of the Exeter Student Service Organization and read to children who were waiting for their mothers at a nearby WIC clinic. As an undergrad at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she organized students in a successful protest against an increase in in-state tuition that would have most negatively affected first-generation college students and students of color. “It was a great time and place to learn about advocacy,” she says. The recipient of a Morehead Scholarship at UNC — a four-year merit scholarship for which she was nominated by Exeter — Wakelin took advantage of the associated opportunities to look more closely at educational equity initiatives happening internationally and spent a summer conducting research in India.

She quickly realized she wanted to see what educational equality — or inequality — looked like closer to home and took a post with Teach for America in the Mississippi Delta after graduation. “Kozol wasn’t looking at Mississippi, but he could have been,” Wakelin says, describing her two years teaching self-contained special education in a post-Brown v. Board of Education high school in Indianola. The school had been neglected so long, she says, that a plaque stating it was the city’s “high school for colored students” still greeted visitors in 2002, when she arrived.

With most white students enrolled at segregated Indianola Academy, Gentry, the only public high school in town, had a primarily Black population that did not accurately reflect the city’s demographics. Every day, regardless of whether her students seemed aware of the deficits, Wakelin saw them. “My classroom was filled with nonfunctional computers, and I had to say, ‘Try not to look at the half of the classroom you can’t use. We’re going to huddle in this other half.’”

I believed that if my students did receive the protections of those laws as they were entitled, they would have been in very different positions in their education trajectories.”

She chose to spend a third Teach for America year in Clarksdale, a socioeconomically comparable community about 90 minutes north of Indianola. Although the schools’ facilities and approaches differed, many of the challenges were the same. Clarksdale’s high school was newer, but students with disabilities were placed in a segregated wing; at Gentry, corporal punishment was an acceptable practice.

“There were lessons to be learned in terms of positives that were happening in both schools,” Wakelin says, “but there were also lots of lessons about the impact of low-wealth communities not being able to raise local resources to fund their schools. Having worked within [underfunded schools] and seeing the impact as a teacher — that is a lesson that has been driving me now for almost 20 years. I’m not lying when I say that experience has impacted me every day.”

In fact, it inspired Wakelin to enroll at Northwestern’s law school, with the idea that she would be able to represent students like those in her classroom. “As a special education teacher, I was required to learn about and I interacted daily with the special education civil rights laws: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act,” Wakelin says.

Although she believed the laws were fundamentally strong, they were not being followed at the Mississippi schools where she taught. “Some of the cornerstones of the laws were being flagrantly violated,” she says. “I believed that if my students did receive the protections of those laws as they were entitled, they would have been in very different positions in their education trajectories.”

At Northwestern, Wakelin maintained her focus on inequality, representing students at risk of expulsion and serving as the managing attorney of the Journal of Law and Social Policy. For the next decade, she represented students with disabilities at Equip for Equality, based in Chicago, before landing at the Education Law Center.

At the ELC since 2018, Wakelin has litigated cases at every level to improve school funding equity and secure essential resources for all students. She was on the team that filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of former students of a boys reform school who alleged abuse; the case resulted in a $3 million settlement with one defendant, but is ongoing. She also represented a first grader who was said to have been denied enrollment in a charter school because of a disability that required special education services.

Wakelin is watching to see what determinations the commonwealth’s education funding commission settles on after it completes the process of soliciting input from residents statewide. She eagerly awaits the plan, expected in the spring, that will ensure sustained investment in Pennsylvania’s public education system. And she will continue doing “education civil rights work” for as long as she needs to, imagining a time when the schools in Savage Inequalities will seem a relic from a different era.

“I have for a long time been interested in working to address what I call the second wave of the American dream,” Wakelin says. “To take the privilege I’ve been afforded and use that to make America the place I think it really needs to be in terms of living up to the ideals that we have as a nation.”

— Sarah Zobel

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2024 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.​