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How Educational Inequality Affects Us All

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Writing this on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is both appropriate and disheartening. It is appropriate because if he was with us today, Dr. King would be fighting to eliminate inequality in all its forms. That he would still need to be fighting makes it a sad occasion on which to think that his legacy is, as yet, unfulfilled.

On January 6, 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations published a report entitled, How Inequality Damages Economies: Research Proves That a More Equal World Would Be More Stable. While the article talks about income inequality as a major contributing factor to national instability – citing that countries with high inequality are more likely to fall into financial crisis, and less likely to have sustained economic growth – rampant educational inequality also damages our economic growth and long-term stability by weakening our tax base, limiting our ability to compete in the global marketplace, and weakening our democracy.

Educational Inequality
Pick up any book by educator and activist Jonathan Kozol such as Savage Inequalities (1991), Amazing Grace (1995), or Shame of the Nation (2005), and you will be shocked by the very human stories of inequality in the American education system.  While Kozol generally focuses on the absolute worst cases, a December 2001 report by the U.S. Department of Education indicates that the inequality in our schools may be far more extensive than even Kozol would believe.

Citing the U.S. Department of Education report, Raegen Miller of the Center for American Progress, explained the extent to which schools that serve low-income and minority students do not receive an equitable share of state and local funding. According to Miller, the report indicated that in 82 percent of Title I school districts, at least one Title I school had a lower average per pupil expenditure than non-Title I schools in the same district. Further, the data, gathered as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, indicates that, in general, students in high poverty schools have a lower percentage of non-federal funds spent on them. For example, schools in Chicago with a poverty rate of 89 percent had an average per pupil expenditure 13 percent below that for non-Title I schools (Miller, 2011). This video from the Center for American Progress explains some of the intricacy of the funding discrepancies by examining the “Comparability Loophole”:
         

 

While there are many different causes of educational inequality, it generally boils down to the fact that children of less-educated, low-income families are less prepared for school and attend schools that are not asfinancially equipped to remediate that shortcoming. The consequences of that difference are far reaching and often overlooked in the ongoing debate about the cost of education, budget concerns, and accountability.

The Consequences of Educational Inequality
Some of the consequences of overall societal inequality, as reported by the Council on Foreign Relations, are increased crime rates, system-wide financial instability, and stunted economic growth. In addition, there are several negative effects of stemic educational inequality:

  • Lowering the Tax Base – High school dropouts earn less than graduates, high school graduates earn less than those with a college diploma, and college graduates earn less than their advanced degree bearing counterparts. In addition, the less educated an individual is, the more likely that person is to be un- or underemployed for an extended period of time. Conversely, a higher percentage of educated individuals in a society should provide a larger tax base for the society as a whole to draw on while a  lower percentage of educated individuals yields a lower tax base upon which to draw.
  • Decreasing Global Competitiveness – The global economic marketplace that we currently participate in has a very small area in which American’s can thrive. That would be in our creative and innovative abilities. Given the vastness of our current educational inequality, there is no telling how many truly creative individuals are being allowed to slip through the cracks. That child who quit school in 8th grade because they were bored in a bad school that couldn’t provide the resources and experienced teachers to challenge them, could have been the person that created an entirely new product, solved the fuel crisis, or cured cancer. But we’ll never know, because the circumstances of their home life and schooling deprived them and us of the opportunity to see what they could have done.
  • Weakening Our Democracy – The basic principles of democracy indicate that it relies on the creativity and independent thinking of its members to function (America.gov). Educational inequality attacks the very core of democracy by failing to provide the support necessary for all members of society to be full and informed participants in the system. Our social norms and practices as well as the basic principles of living in a democratic society should be taught in schools. Without full understanding of the system and the role that the individual is intended to play in supporting and changing the system, it cannot function as it is intended to.

Solutions
One side of the educational inequality solution is to “break the cycle of poverty.” The other, seldom stated side of the same coin is to break the cycle of privilege. According to Adam Gamoran of the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, privilege is self-perpetuating (2001). The most economically well-off parents send their children to more advantaged schools, this schooling sets up those children to graduate high school, attend college, and maybe graduate school, and provide a more economically stable environment for their children, who will attend even better schools, and so on. This is not to say that those excellent schools should be stripped down to bare-bones educational experiences, but rather that the unfair funding practices that allow for those schools to be so much better, need to be curtailed.

A simple solution to this problem is to spread the wealth of our nation more equitably. This concept applies not only to schools, but also to the home situations that set some students behind their peers even before they enter school. The long term benefits of education are so substantial that the very concept of cutting education budgets should be outlawed. There is no single federal, state, or local budgetary item that is more central to the continued success of the individual or community than education. Increasing funding for all schools will have the effect of creating a more economically robust and viable society that could in turn alleviate many other budgetary concerns. It is essentially an application of the cycle of privilege at the societal level.

Finally, education and participation in the education system must be made more attractive for all involved with it. Higher salaries for teachers will help to attract and retain the best and brightest, even in schools that currently seem the least attractive to work in. Making learning more individualized, personalized, and engaging to all students will curb the dropout rate, and provide more educated workers and innovators to fuel continued economic growth.

A Long Way to Go
Dr. King would certainly have been outside the Norwalk Connecticut courthouse in April of 2011 in support of homeless mother Tanya McDowell, who was arrested and charged with larceny and conspiracy for sending her child to a wealthy suburban Norwalk school rather than the urban Bridgeport school her child was districted for (Applebome, New York Times, April 27, 2011). This case and the circumstances surrounding it are not new or unique to Connecticut and they pervade much of the educational landscape of this country with very real consequences that need to be addresses in order to ensure our future as an economic power and democratic beacon.

There are some things that Dr. King would have been excited to see, such as the 2008 election of the first African American President to the White House. There are also far too many other things, such as ever increasing education inequality, that would have kept the fire burning in him. Let’s take a moment to reflect not only on his legacy, but also on the ways we have failed that legacy. We are in a time ripe for large scale societal changes; let’s take advantage of this historic moment to recommit ourselves to continuing to move towards Dr. King’s Great Dream.