Equality in Education for Some

Every day, American students push their desks forward and rise out of their metal chairs to pledge allegiance to the stars and stripes. With liberty and justice for all… No one hesitates to proclaim that last word, “all.” Yet teachers in New London duct tape windows so that rain doesn’t seep through the glass,[1] 55 percent of water fountains in New Jersey’s Bergen District schools are contaminated with lead,[2] the gym at a Detroit elementary-middle school is closed because “half of the floor is buckled and the other half is covered in toxic black mold.”[3] The American Society of Civil Engineers gave education facilities across the country a “D” on the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, estimating that it would take $380 billion and more than a decade to bring up all schools to “acceptable standards.” This would include overhauling the spending gaps that exist between states, at a rough average of $1,600 of shortfall per student.

When Americans proclaim all, we really mean some. Our idea of justice, it seems, is made of lead-ridden pipes and mold. Distributive justice, allocating goods and resources fairly, is one of those broken dreams — leaders burn their throats emphasizing the importance of educational equity for the country’s future. Yet in reality, America’s students are being prepared for the future with leaky roofs, lead-infested drinking fountains, and deteriorating walls.

Instead of looking at whiteboards filled with physics equations, fifth-grader Heaven Talavera of PS 106, the “worst school in NYC,” was remembering what it was like when science classes were even offered at school.[4] Instead of funneling block grants toward repairing busted sinks and cracked doors, and eliminating cockroach infestations, the LA Unified School District spent $1 billion on iPads, which were not distributed to any schools with “poor conditions.”[5] Apparently, some subjects are better-tested digitally, but not everyone gets to experience that. Why in the world would we give up pixel quality for some battered lockers and sinkholes in the inner-cities? The standard has become targeting resources in an unfair manner. Distributive justice has been thrown out the window and replaced by a disregard of the actual needs and concerns of schools. Numbers and statistics can only help you if they show proof of prosperity.

The government tends to favor those who are already succeeding. Funding for schools is directly tied to income and property taxes, thus allowing resources to be disproportionately allocated, putting schools in poor areas at an automatic disadvantage. Suburban schools in wealthy regions with passing rates over 80% are not going to suffer if they don’t see a few new take-home laptops and tablets. It’s the schools where the majority of students rely on free and reduced lunches that need attention. Instead, they are kicked to the side, forgotten — and not just for the period of primary education. The constituents will continue to be neglected and forgotten as they struggle to graduate, drop out, look for jobs. And, when their voices are finally loud enough to proclaim their grievances, they will be told that it was their fault they didn’t pay attention in school, that they didn’t get their diplomas.

What was really preventing them from attaining their degrees, from keeping up a majority graduation rate? One idea: standardization. And the devil that bore it? Common Core. Here’s the catch, though — Common Core is not a bad idea, and neither is standardization. They’re only bad ideas where they don’t belong — the U.S. happens to be one of those places. Standardization would only ever thrive in an already standardized society. It simply doesn’t make sense to expect schools performing at the lowest rates to somehow emerge with success stories because some benchmarks were introduced for them to reach. No matter how much you balance on the tips of your toes and try to pull yourself up, you’ll eventually wear out. Even if you hold your weight for a bit, it can’t last forever.

The New York State Department of Education released an analysis of students’ passing rates in 2013. Schools populated by 75 percent or more black and Hispanic students, saw passing rates drop by a range of 55-58 percent. Meanwhile, 75 percent or more white schools only experience drops in passing rates by approximately 36 percent.[6] Whether we admit or not, the socioeconomic divide that exists in our country is directly related to race. According to the National Equity Atlas’ 2016 statistics, nearly three-fourths of black and Latino students attend schools defined as impoverished by federal guidelines.[7] Approximately seven percent of white students attend schools with high-poverty levels. These schools need direct attention and proper evaluations, but they also need money. They can attempt to attain additional funding through the manipulative game that the federal government has established. A promise of “40 points out of 500 [in a competition for grants] to states that were collaborating to create common college- and career-ready standards.”[8] So, the government is technically addressing the unjust allocation of funds. Except, it’s being done with incentives to adhere to their direct standards, all while turning the problem of inequity into a game show for points and prizes that don’t really amount to anything.

The argument about standardization is a superficial cover-up; no one wants to talk about the racial and socioeconomic divides that fuel educational inequity. It’s easier to blast Common Core for the backwards thinking it introduces in science and mathematics. It’s easier to stand up for standardization when the overwhelming argument is pulled straight from their mission statement: “prepare [students] to succeed in college, career, and life.”[9] What’s harder is deviating from that path, but that’s what brings discussions to where they should and need to be. We should be addressing Heaven Talavera’s memories of science classes and turning them back into a reality. We should be revising the connection that ties property taxes and school funds in order to give every neighborhood a real and equal chance. We need to allow our students to learn in clean and encouraging environments so that they may charge forward in making this country proud.

Our bright-eyed innocent children, speaking out loud the broken promise of equality are being taken advantage of. They are served lies on styrofoam lunch platters and then blamed for the consequences that result in their believing them and following through with their ideals. The fate of our nation will soon lie in the hands that are now small and fragile. Instead of some of those hands touching cold concrete cracks, all those hands should be filled with pencils and notebooks. This nation will not be collectively succeeding if even just one person is a step behind. When we say all, we must begin to really mean it.


Works Cited

[1] Alana Semuels, “Good School, Rich School; Bad school, Poor School,” The Atlantic, August 25, 2016.

[2] Phil Gregory, “Lead in Drinking Water Found in Most Bergen County Schools,” WBGO, July 17, 2017.

[3] Valerie Strauss, “How Bad are Conditions in Detroit Public Schools? This Appalling,” The Washington Post, January 20, 2016.

[4]  Rebecca Klein, “Reports Of The ‘Worst School’ In NYC Will Make You Very, Very Depressed,” Huffington Post, January 25, 2014.

[5] Annie Gilbertson, “The LA School iPad Scandal: What You Need to Know,” NPR, August 27, 2014.

[6] Javier C. Hernandes, “Common Core, in 9-Year Old Eyes,” NY Times, June 14, 2014.

[7] “Indicators: School Poverty,” National Equity Atlas, July 12, 2017.

[8] “Duncan Pushes Back on Attacks on Common Core Standards,” U.S. Department of Education, June 25, 2013.

[9] “Preparing America’s Students for Success,” Common Core, July 13, 2017.