America Promises Equal Opportunity But It's a Complete Lie

Jun 6, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Schools are where we're supposed to find equal opportunity. Instead we find a sorting system that magnifies inequality. In fact, schools ration out opportunity to predictable top dogs and underdogs, with the most privileged dogs eating first. For example, look at how this works in Oakland, where I live. Babies born less than four miles apart here have radically different chances. You can go to Public School A in West Oakland, which is 92 percent free and reduced-price lunch, where not a single child scored at or above grade level in reading, and 1 percent are proficient in math. Not far down the block, less than a four mile drive, there is Public School B. Only 1 percent of its students are on free and reduced-price lunch, and 89 percent of the kids can read and 88 percent are proficient in math. Then there’s Public School C. It’s only a stone’s throw from affluent School B but a chasm of opportunity divides them. Seventy-four percent of the kids at School C qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and only 13 percent of students are reading proficiently and 15 percent proficient in math. Then if we travel up to the Hills and visit Public School D, we find another affluent elementary school with only 8 percent free and reduced. There, 79 percent of students are reading on grade level and 78 percent are at grade level in math.
School A School B School C School D
Free/Reduced Lunch 92% 1% 74% 8%
Reading Proficiency 0% 89% 13% 79%
Math Proficiency 1% 88% 15% 78%
Distance From School A 3.7 miles 4 miles (Only .5 miles from School B) 6.6 miles
% African-American 62.7% 1.9% 53.5% 7.4%

Please show me the equal opportunity? An accident of birth can determine your chances.

The Disparities in Public Schools Are Not Inevitable

These are all “public” schools, the free education that every child in our country is promised. But they are very different schools, with very different opportunities and very different results. Four miles apart, there is a school two-thirds Black and almost all low income and another school that is 2 percent Black with almost no low-income students. These disparities aren’t natural or inevitable, they are the remnants of formal segregation that are perpetuated by current enrollment rules and policies, and we can (and have a duty to) change this. Richard Rothstein’s powerful book, "The Color of Law," details the way that state action created the segregated and highly unequal condition we are in through housing policy, enforcing public and private segregation, redevelopment and other means. Privilege, disparate opportunity and disadvantage will just keep replicating until we interrupt these patterns. And no matter where you stand on the political spectrum (unless it is in the racist, classist, eugenicist camp), you gotta at least admit there is a problem when you look at our four public schools and the grave disparities in opportunities they offer. We owe it to those children not born lucky enough to attend school B, to at least try to change this rigged system.

Dirk Tillotson

Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East. As a child, his parents moved their family to a high-performing school district where they were the first Black family on the block. The challenges of that experience embedded in him a desire to create academically high-quality schools where students don’t have to check their identities at the door. Dirk currently resides in Oakland, California, and blogs at Great School Voices.

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