Here in the United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave, we believe in equality. For education, that means if all students are expected to reach the same performance standards and all teachers must earn similar credentials, there is equality in the system. We think everybody is on the same page. Locally, you and your neighbors fund schools based on your property taxes. Add some federal grants targeting specific disadvantaged groups, and you more or less get America’s approach to public education. How does this approach work out in practice? Let’s look at a fact-based imaginary pair of children to find out.
Billy lives in Orange County, California. According to the
U.S. Census, the median household income where Billy and his family live is $78,145. Average household size is three people. According to local realty information, 48 percent of people in the area
Billy’s parents are upper-middle class and consider themselves “socially conscious,” so they send him to the local public school. They think it will be good for his character and they’re rather adamant about not raising a snob. They try to be involved at his school, and at least one, if not both parents, participate in the semi-annual fundraiser. Billy's school is state of the art, both in facilities and student achievement. Most people mistake it for a fancy private school.
Charniece lives in South Central Los Angeles. According to the U.S. Census,
median household income in her neighborhood is $31,637 and the average household size is four people. More than half the people in the neighborhood—of both sexes—have never been married. For Charniece, that means it’s just her and her mom, a bus driver who just wants a better life for her daughter. Charniece's mother makes $47,000 and is expecting another child. This means she’ll be taking on a second job and she'll be less active at Charniece's school. At Charniece's school, 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They have limited classes for gifted students. The average class size is 35 students and the school has underperformed on standardized tests for the last three years.
The Resource Gap Is Clear
The flawed assumption in our usual thinking about equality is that you would get the same return on a fiscal investment in schools no matter where you put it. But a return on $2,500 given to Billy is going have a higher yield over a shorter amount of time because Billy does not face the same socio-economic challenges as Charniece. There is a clear resource gap between the two families and between the public schools that serve their children. Consequently, they get very different returns from the system. And while there are several different types of inequity at work here, the most damaging is arguably socio-economic inequity. Yes, Charniece can eventually meet the same performance standards as Billy, but not without support and probably not in the same time frame. You see, the $2,500 doesn't go as far when you don't already have a state-of-the art-library, or your classrooms are over capacity and stuck with outdated technology. In reality, you'd probably need to invest somewhere between double and four times as much in Charniece for an equitable return. If not, then it’s quite doubtful that you're serious about a competitive, equitable education system.
An Equitable Return
The political problem is that ultimately someone has to fund the deficit between the rich and the poor. To make that happen, schools have to educate students whose value generates an equitable return no matter where they are. In other words, the poor have to compete against the rich. But what if the rich are not inclined to redistribute their resources for people and issues that don't directly affect them? Why would rich people take resources from their kids to give them to kids in a community where they don't live or receive any added value? It might sound selfish but in a free country you can't make people sacrifice and then call it fair. It has to be something they do of their own volition or else when the economic or political tides shift, they will simply reclaim what they perceive was theirs. Funding the deficit between rich and poor, then, will mean building a consensus to increase the overall market value of our education system in as many places as possible. We need competitive funding opportunities for educational programs, services and products (perhaps corporate tax abatements to meet skills deficits through underfunded schools). We need innovative funding vehicles for education. If the rich won’t help the poor because they don’t see the value, we’ll just have to show them!
Orie D. Ward is a Senior Management Consultant at Philogic that specializes in strategy, planning and innovation. He works with professional development associations in business and law to design and implement national program operations. He is also a former financial literacy teacher with programs that have been featured by the Wall Street Journal and U.S. Department of Treasury. He has sat on ...