August 7, 2008

Inequities in Public Education – A Look Back in Time

by Elizabeth Borges, Advocacy Assistant.

The troubling state of public education in Washington, D.C. is a pressing concern, though certainly not a new one. District schools have long suffered from mismanagement, misuse of funds, and lack of strong direction, resulting in appalling learning conditions for students. Sociologist Jonathan Kozol documents these sub-standard conditions in his 1991 book Savage Inequalities, which examines the plight of urban school students across the United States. In addition to visiting schools in DC, Kozol travels to public schools in East St. Louis, Chicago, and New York, among others. As he recounts his devastating experiences in each city, Kozol chips away at the widely held belief that the US provides equal educational opportunity for all children – and despondently wonders whether the US will ever achieve this goal.

In Washington, Kozol visits a downtrodden school in Anacostia. Physically, the school is sordid and unsafe – rats flood the basement cafeteria after a rainfall. The surrounding environment is not much better: the principal releases students early from school one day because he heard that there would be a shooting nearby. The students respond to these harsh realities with an attitude of hopelessness. One teacher notes that her students don’t smile and she suggests that such melancholy influences their education: “Why should they learn when their lives are so hard and so unhappy?” (182).

In addition to these observations, the section on DC focuses, as many of Kozol’s chapters do, on the intersections between race, class, and educational inequity. Kozol is struck by the stark distinction between the blooming cherry blossoms by the National Mall and the decrepit schools in Anacostia. In recognizing this contrast, Kozol is simply one of many who have wondered about the seemingly disparate worlds of Washington – one that exists for the rich, mostly white population, and one for the poor, predominantly black residents.

Indeed, perhaps Kozol’s most striking finding is not the wretched state of urban schools, but rather the gross inequity between schools in similar areas. While the conditions of the city schools are appalling, they are even more shameful when juxtaposed against the relatively pleasant atmospheres of the suburban school districts. Kozol notes that the sunny, privileged Fairfax and Montgomery County school districts exist only miles away from the failing urban schools of DC. How, Kozol asks his readers, could such inequity exist in America?

Kozol’s research reveals that this inequity is partly due to imbalanced funding – he shows that, at least in 1991, urban schools receive far less money from the government than do suburban schools. To be sure, increased funding is essential to ensuring equal opportunity. In this case, Kozol argues that unequal funding (albeit the other way around) may actually be necessary to create equal opportunity. He suggests that urban schools must be funded more than suburban schools, at least for a while, to make up for the years of inequities. In other words, poorer schools must receive more money so that their kids can catch up to students in richer schools and thus have equal opportunity.

Still, money alone is not enough to rectify educational inequities. Indeed, in 2007 Washington, D.C. spent $12,279 per student per year, the third highest amount out of the 100 largest school districts in the nation, according to the Washington Post. Clearly, equal educational opportunity will not result from a shift or increase in funds, however necessary this money may be. Kozol believes that money alone cannot solve the educational crisis in America because the problem is rooted in deeply held attitudes of racism and superiority. Simply put, children in urban schools get less because the upper classes think they deserve less. Thus, in order to truly improve the educational landscape, the middle and upper classes must change their beliefs. They must devote their time, energy, and resources to providing an education for urban students that is on par with that of their own children. In essence, they must refuse to participate any longer in a race in which they have been given a monumental head start. Only with such change of heart can there be a real change of opportunity.

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