To Be Fair, We Need to Be Uneven (by Guest Blogger Cheryl Vandemore)

Introduction

pencilsA few years ago at about the same time I became an “empty-nester” I got involved in an educational non-profit which started to open my eyes about the vastly unequal education children receive in the public school system. For anyone interested in the topic, Jonathan Kozol’s books are both devastating and beautifully written. For this project I felt ready to confront my personal role in education inequality and to consider why I failed to see what was in front of me locally and nationally. I also continue to read articles – both scholarly and popular – that discuss solutions.

Statement of research question:

Why do we allow our public school system to be grossly unfair to children growing up in poverty and what can we do about it?

Research Collection

1.  Affeldt, John. “Shame on California Districts Seeking to Perpetuate Funding             Advantages.” HuffPost Politics. Huffington Post, 02 Feb 2013. Web. 28 May  2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-affeldt/california-school-districts-funding_b_2697792.html&gt;.

Education activist and attorney John Affeldt has led several successful legal battles on behalf of underfunded schools and disadvantaged students. He is the Managing Attorney at Public Advocates, a non-profit civil rights law firm and has been twice recognized as California Attorney of the Year. In this Huffington Post editorial he analyzes California Governor Jerry Brown’s decision to distribute more money to schools for each pupil that is low income, an English Learner or a foster youth and to provide additional money to schools with high ratios of such students. Previously a study had found that high poverty districts were getting $620 less per student than low poverty districts and Affeldt praises Brown for courage in the face of powerful political interests. Affeldt criticizes relatively affluent schools, which used to get an unfairly large portion of spending, for complaining about the new allocations.

This is a great article for my collection because it focuses on two emerging themes in all of my research.  The first theme is that kids growing up in poverty need more educational resources to get the same education that a middle class child is getting. Affeldt states:

“More than 70 major adequacy studies over the past 20 years show  that anywhere from 40 to 100 percent more money per student is required to teach children from poor and lower-income households than is required to teach their more affluent classmates.”

My research question asks what we can about our unfair education system and this is one of the answers – we can accept that it will cost more to educate some children.  The other emergent theme is the reaction of better-off schools within a school district that are used to getting more than their share (stealing from poorer schools) and the difficulty middle class parents have in seeing how unfair this situation has been and how little enthusiasm they show for addressing it by providing more funds to poorer schools.

2. Darden, Edwin C. “School Boards Must Prioritize Student Equity.” Education Week             30.32 (2011): 20-21. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 May 2013.

Edwin Darden has written extensively about legal issues in education and education reform. This short piece in Education Week is a reminder that School Boards have the power and the responsibility to look out for the interests of every child in the district and argues that equity “should be a central value in resource decision making.”

More than anything, this article reminds me how many people are involved in perpetuating the unfairness reflected in so many districts where, as Darden states, “the sad irony is that learning-related resources necessary for high academic performance are often tilted toward middle-class and affluent schools.” School boards can MANDATE equity. Of course!

3. Jasey, Rhena Catherine. “Still Separate And Unequal.” American Interest 8.1             (2012): 44-51. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 May 2013.

Rhena Catherine Jasey is a teacher, in fact she was one of the four teachers who starred in the documentary “The American Teacher”. She has a BA from Harvard and an MA and M.Ed from Columbia. She is part of an experiment in paying teachers a salary more reflective of what they are worth and teaches at The Equity Project Charter School where each teacher earns at least $125,000. Her article in The American Interest acknowledges the profound inequalities in education, which she calls the “preeminent civil rights issue of our time.” She lists ways we can and should improve schools including adequate numbers of social workers in Title 1 schools, better teacher pay to recruit more talent into teaching (we have an opportunity to replace 1.8 million teachers in the years ahead) and better (but not more) testing.

This article was a boon for me because it is not only filled with good ideas, but Jasey puts into words the way I feel about equity in education. I struggle with explaining why its okay that some kids are born rich and some are born poor but not okay that rich kids receive a much better education than poor kids. She does not.

 4. Rosenthal, Brian M. “As parents raise cash, schools confront big gap.” Seattle             Times Local News. The Seattle Times, 28 Jan 2012. Web. 28 May 2013.

Brian Rosenthal is the education reporter for the Seattle Times. In this news article he explains that Seattle area parents are pitching in to pay for the programs that schools are cutting due to budget constraints. But they only want to pay for improvement to their neighborhood school – to benefit their children. It sounds reasonable but the effect is that schools in affluent zip codes end up with significantly more resources than schools in poorer zip codes. He explains what we do here in Portland – 30% of all money donated by parents goes into an “equity fund” and is redistributed out among all schools.

 

This makes me proud to be from Portland! I am not saying that 30% is enough, but at least we understand the idea of equity.  I had been looking for an article that discussed the local equity situation and this was the only recent one I could find. This is a great article because it is sympathetic to all sides of the “parent donations” issue.

 

The Public Writing: A Public Blog Post 

To Be Fair, We Need to Be Uneven.

We have a funny, unresolved relationship with the idea of fairness.  We say “life’s not fair” then “but that’s not fair!” reflecting our understanding that there is no way to make everything equal – and also that whenever we can we should be just. Alas, when it comes to funding public education things are neither fair nor just.

Children are born into enormously unequal circumstances. This is unlikely to change anytime soon, but it is worth noting that it has not always been true. There is nothing inherent in humans that makes this true. For millions of years, we lived in circumstances that saw each child receive nearly identical parenting, socialization, and access to knowledge, social support and material resources.  Only in the last 10,000 years did we invent privacy, personal property and all the technologies that isolate us from each other creating chasms of inequality.

In the global view, any child born in America is favored in the great lottery of life. A baby in Somalia has nearly a 20% risk of dying before age five.  A girl born in northern rural India is considered a curse. Of course being born here is not winning the jackpot – there are at least 15 better places to be born according to the Economist Intelligence Unit – countries like Switzerland, Australia and Norway – small, peaceful, homogenous, liberal democracies.

In the United States there is great disparity. Some babies will be born into a millionaire class that expands by 1000 households per day. Many more will be born into what remains of the middle class – typically two working parents (married or not) with some post-secondary education or job training. Nearly a third will be born into poverty. Who your parents are matters, and it’s not because of “work ethic”

With the exception of small numbers of people on either extreme of the spectrum – inheritors of great wealth who never have to work and the unemployable poor (usually due to addiction or mental illness), all these parents work hard to provide for themselves and their children.  This is not about who works hard. Americans are a hard-working bunch.

But in America no matter how hard you work you are unlikely to get out of poverty. This is a land of profoundly uneven opportunity, a land of social immobility. Only one thing we know of gives a child born into poverty a decent chance of rising out of it and that is a good education – an education that helps equalize some of the differences in parenting, socialization and resources that are an accident of birth.

In funding public education we could decide to be just. We could recognize that it will require more to educate children from impoverished backgrounds. According to John Affeldt, a huge body of research indicates these students require – 40 – 100% more. (Please do not say we can’t afford this – if we can afford to imprison 10% of this population we could afford to provide $20k/yr educations to all of them.)  (Levin, and Cecelia E. Rouse).

Instead we do everything imaginable – and some things I would never have believed – to make an unfair situation worse. The better your circumstances at birth, the more we lavish on you in the public system. Better buildings, materials and teachers: more subjects and experiences. Middle class parents are demanding and organized. They speak English as a first language and know people in power. Somehow when a school board allots resources, the neediest schools end up with the scraps. As Edwin Darden states in Education Week, “the sad irony is that learning-related resources necessary for high academic performance are often tilted toward middle-class and affluent schools.”

Why do we do this? The fact that our whole education system is underfunded – setting up a competition for resources – is a related but different matter. It’s true if we weren’t so worried about all schools and all students we might act differently. But I want to talk about something specific. I want to talk about the unintended consequences of doing everything you can for your own children.

I did almost everything I could for my daughter and stepson. It seemed both natural (primal even) and reasonable. It was my job after all, and I lived in terror of not being a good mother. I worried about them and their futures incessantly. It seemed not only desirable but crucial to make sure they got every chance, every opportunity, every advantage. It felt like their futures depended on it.

It wasn’t that I wished any other child ill, absolutely not. It is worse than that. I didn’t think of other children at all. I saw only my children and I was hyper-vigilant about spotting and reacting to anything that might help or harm them. This is more amazing than embarrassing (and it is embarrassing). The truth is my kids were never in any kind of danger that my actions could mitigate in any way.

They remained vulnerable to all the elements of life I can’t do anything about – illness, accidents, mental health problems, government stupidity, economic downturns, etc.  But every day of their lives they had safety, health care, nutritious food, exercise, structure, a non-toxic and comfortable environment, access to numerous educated adults and a lot of emotional support.

I took additional actions – private schools, tutoring, music lessons, travel – that had the unintended consequence of creating a bigger gap between my children and a population of children I never really thought about. Children as real and miraculous as my children who were, to me, out of sight and out of mind.

Here is what I would change if I got a “do-over”. I wouldn’t worry about “the futures” of my daughter, my stepson or their friends. That was misplaced to a grotesque degree. That kind of thinking turns into a justification for investing more and more in schools and students who are already ahead of the curve.  Meanwhile in poorer neighborhoods basic needs go unmet resulting in a high rate of school failure. Then, when a school is failing we threaten it, punish it and extract even more resources. Unsurprisingly this does not help.

What would help is recognizing that students born into or near poverty are going to be more expensive to educate than other children and committing to making that investment, which will pay itself back in reduced social system costs and increased revenues after one generation.

This is not, as some will have you think a case where “we don’t know what will help so we might as well do nothing”.  Rhena Catherine Jasey, star of the film “The American Teacher” describes several ideas – universal early childhood education, smaller class sizes, enough social workers to make sure kids are in a position to learn and expanded school hours filled with inspiring experiences. Jasey isn’t against testing but she suggests we need much better standardized tests. Tests that assess creativity and critical thinking – the qualities employers are most looking for. Of course nothing can happen without talented teachers. We have a chance to replace 1.8M retiring teachers with our best young people if we make the career more attractive (Jasey).

We are not powerless to move our country away from inequality and I have no patience for the idea we can’t afford to educate all our children. We have money to offer tax cuts to the rich and to fund a military many times larger than any potential enemy but for some reason we can’t afford an investment that will pay off? We are either intentionally perpetuating inequality or so caught up in anxiety about our own families that we really don’t see the wrong we are allowing – the chronic and pervasive failure to provide schools in poorer areas with the resources they need to educate students. I am hoping it is the later.

Works Cited

Affeldt, John. “Shame on California Districts Seeking to Perpetuate Funding Advantages.” HuffPost Politics. Huffington Post, 02 Feb 2013. Web. 28 May  2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-affeldt/california-school-districts-funding_b_2697792.html&gt;.

Darden, Edwin C. “School Boards Must Prioritize Student Equity.” Education Week  30.32 (2011): 20-21. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 May 2013.

Jasey, Rhena Catherine. “Still Separate And Unequal.” American Interest 8.1 (2012): 44-51. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 May 2013.

Levin, Henry M., and Cecelia E. Rouse. “The True Cost of high School Droupouts.” New York Times 25 January 2012. Print.             <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/opinion/the-true-cost-of-high-school-dropouts.html?_r=0&gt;.

Rosenthal, Brian M. “As parents raise cash, schools confront big gap.” Seattle Times Local News. The Seattle Times, 28 Jan 2012. Web. 28 May 2013.

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