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The Myth of the “Great Equalizer”

U.S. society is incredibly unequal, and it’s only getting worse. The gap between rich and poor more than doubled from 1989 to 2016, while the gap between Black and white household income has only increased since the 1980s (Pew). The average white American has eight times the net worth of the average Black American (Forbes). And the top 1% has 42% of the nation’s wealth (Inequality). The well-off and poor eat different foods (National Geographic) and have different lifespans (Brookings). Education is portrayed as a remedy for these divisions: a “great equalizer,” in the words of U.S. public education advocate Horace Mann (Britannica). Instead, vast disparities in public school funding and conditions based on students’ economic class and race make the educational system a catalyst for inequality.

A Pennsylvania judge is currently considering a lawsuit contending that the state’s education system unconstitutionally violates students’ rights to education and equal protection under the law. Since public school funding depends on local taxes, wealthy Pennsylvania school districts spend $4,800 more for each student than poor ones.

TAKE ACTION

• Follow and support IntegrateNYC, the Education Law Center, and the Philadelphia Student Union.

• Contribute to crowdfunding campaigns for educators in underfunded schools in your area.

 “The inadequate resources prevent many Pennsylvania students from meeting academic standards set by the state. The state legislature has an obligation to ensure that every student, not only those living in select ZIP codes, receive the basic resources they need,” says Deborah Gordan Klehr of the Education Law Center (WFMZ).

Since students from more-affluent families attend better-funded schools, they are better equipped to attend high-performing colleges and gain good jobs. Rather than a great equalizer, the U.S. education system is one of the great perpetrators of intergenerational inequality. 

“Right now, there exists an almost ironclad link between a child’s ZIP code and her chances of success,” says James E. Ryan of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Our education system, traditionally thought of as the chief mechanism to address the opportunity gap, instead too often reflects and entrenches existing societal inequities” (Harvard Gazette). 

This has severe consequences for racial equity. Although Brown v. Board of Education outlawed explicit racial segregation in schools almost 70 years ago, de facto racial segregation never ended. Half of the public school students in the U.S. attend overwhelmingly white or nonwhite schools. This matters because white school districts get $23 billion more than nonwhite districts each year (NPR). Even integrated schools lose resources when affluent white parents pull their children out to attend private institutions instead — whether or not those parents feel “a lot of guilt” about their decisions (Huffington Post). Wild disparities in school funding in a country “rife with apartheid schools” make education a vastly unequal public good (Complex). 

The top public schools in the country feature “exemplary” teachers who are “supportive of every student,” “a club for just about everyone,” and educational experiences that are “amazing for anybody trying to reach Ivy Colleges” (Business Insider). Meanwhile, students of color in poor schools are “routinely” transported to juvenile detention centers by police who are given “unfettered authority to stop, frisk, detain, question, search, and arrest schoolchildren on and off school grounds” (Learning for Justice). Students of color are placed on the school-to-prison pipeline by over-policing and over-surveillance since kindergarten (U.S. News) and by school funding deficits that leave kids without desks, books, or safe buildings to learn in (The Guardian). 

Many teachers start the school year by crowdfunding thousands of dollars for classroom supplies while community organizations continue the fight for tangible educational equity (MSN). With vast public school funding disparities, claiming that education will automatically fix inequality is a cruel joke. We must fight for the education that all of us and our communities deserve.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Education is presented as an equalizing force.

• Racial segregation and local school funding create an uneven playing field.

• Without racial and economic justice, public education reproduces inequality.

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