Educational Inequality: From Grade School to Graduation
Inequality in education seems to be one of the more counter-intuitive things I can imagine: how can our education system exacerbate existing inequalities?
And yet, we should not be surprised. Last summer I visited Arkansas, stopping by Little Rock Central High School, the location of one of the most powerful moments in American history.
In 1957 and in accordance with a 1954 Supreme Court ruling to integrate schools (Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483), nine African-American teenagers marched through an angry mob to school, eventually having to be escorted by the 101st Airborne Division as per President Eisenhower’s order.
The museum erected to commemorate this event stands across the street, and it powerfully evokes the events themselves, including audio and video clips of testimonials and news clips, adding an interactional scale to the micro-level events that occurred in the lunchroom (e.g., the ”Chili Incident”). The stuff brought me to tears. It’s also the stuff you bring back with you to class. To many students, this is ancient history.
When talking with students about education in the U.S., I start with John Dewey and his belief in the ideal of meritocracy. I ask my students: “Did your parents or friend’s parents move to a particular neighborhood because of the school district?” I then prod them further: “Why should that matter? Why are there good schools and bad schools?”
These are seemingly simple questions, but they unlock a set of assumptions about how we organize our public education system, and how it can undermine our shared belief in meritocracy. It is hard for students to reflect on being the beneficiaries of an unequal education system. (Here’s a news story on my high school. You can find your high school’s rank here.)
For students fresh out of high school, who maybe heard of Little Rock Central in High School, we move to thinking about how property taxes link to educational resources.
Here is a nice chart on the sources of one state’s education funds from a study on this topic by a non-partisan think tank, Minnesota 2020:
Source: Minnesota 2020
Over the last few years, state funds are a lesser proportion of school funds, and local taxes are taking a greater proportion of the burden. Schools in poorer communities receive fewer resources. Funding for programs that attempt to directly address these inequalities are perpetually under funded: Title 1, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), Pell Grants, and Head Start. The New York Times reports that laws seeking to balance inequalities, like “No Child Left Behind,” have not closed achievement gaps.
The results? It is always a surprise when my students see a graph that shows SAT scores having a positive correlation with parental income. (Here’s a visualization of the data, along with a discussion at The Society Pages.) So much for merit. (A fantastic new book about how the other half learns, see Shamus Kahn’s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.)
Sociologists like to use Robert Merton’s manifest (i.e., obvious and intended) and latent (i.e., hidden and unintended) functions of particular social phenomena, and you should think about them as they apply to this scenario. If the obvious and intended purposes of education are to provide equal access to information, training for skills, and equal chances to succeed, the latent functions of tying education funds to property taxes might be the reproduction of inequality.
Seemingly race-neutral, the policy of tethering education funds to property should be connected with decades of other social problems, including redlining (a term coined by a sociologist to describe how banks would systematically avoid investing in predominantly African American communities), steering (the practice of real estate agents directing African Americans to particular neighborhoods and hiding housing opportunities in from them), and other forms of discrimination.
Can you hypothesize why this system is constitutional? In a 1973 5-to-4 ruling (San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1) the U.S. Supreme Court found that funding for education based upon property taxes was not in violation of the 14th Amendment and the same Equal Protection Clause (affirming the commitment that “all men are created equal”) that allowed the Little Rock Nine to walk into their high school. Thurgood Marshall, in his dissent, wrote that “The Court concludes that public education is not constitutionally guaranteed [despite the fact that] no other state function is so uniformly recognized as an essential element of our society's well being.”
If you are interested in seeing how your high school ranks as related to those nearby, Propublica compiled data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, and created an online tool called "The Opportunity Gap."
And last, there are the revelations from recent reports on college admissions officers seeking out full paying students, seeking higher-income students (which is to say, students with parents who have higher incomes).
Meanwhile, student loans are an increasingly risky endeavor. Higher education loans became a one trillion dollar business, and a New York Times article provided detailed and personal accounts of the weight on "generation debt," and a devastating report Congressional report found private colleges can damage students’ long term financial stability, and another wherein 2013 graduates will, on average, be shackled with over $35,000 of debt, creating yet another layer of inequality.