Education Reform: The Civil Rights Issue of Today

My educational experience at Farmington High School can be defined by walking into a predominantly white classroom; students sitting upright in their desks, refreshing Power School anxiously, waiting for the grade for the quiz they took last period to be uploaded. This academically serious environment paired with access to technology and resources plagues many students with the false idea that this is what all educational facilities are like. However, this perception of education in America could not be farther from the truth, which raises the question, how do we ensure that students across America experience the same quality of education? It also raises the even more frightening question, is it possible? Students are raised in so many different environments, with a wide range of socioeconomic statuses. The U.S. Department of Education declares, “Equity in education is vital because equality of opportunity is a core American value.” This statement is admirable, but it is unbelievably difficult to control all of the factors that contribute to inequity in educational facilities. That does not mean efforts to equalize educational standards should stop. The more we can do to improve disadvantaged school systems, the better off America will be.

Public schooling is meant to be the “great equalizer,” a way for students of different socioeconomic and racial/ethnic backgrounds to attain the same quality of education. On the contrary, using property taxes as a means for public education funding inherently prompts disadvantages for students in poorer areas. For instance, NPR published an eye-opening report on the differences between two public school districts in Chicago: the Chicago Ridge School District in Illinois and the Rondout School in Chicago’s affluent suburbs. The suburban school is very close in proximity to prosperous businesses and houses of higher property value resulting in lavish funding for small classes and individualized learning plans. The teachers all have nearly a decade of experience and are paid a yearly salary of $90,000. Options for lunch are broader and students are provided with breaks for “mindful movement.” This is shockingly different from students’ experiences at the Chicago Ridge facilities in Illinois where staff is shared among the three schools in the district. It’s sad but truthful to say that the students at Chicago Ridge’s low quality of education results from two thirds of the families in the district coming from low-income households. In a capitalist society, where businesses have the liberty to prosper under a free market, it is nearly impossible to ensure equality in public schools. There is still an overwhelmingly large gap when observing the funding for suburban schools compared to that for inner city schools. Unfortunately, efforts by state governments to make up for this inequity in funding is not enough to compensate for socio-economic differences.

It is no secret that America has a long history of efforts made to integrate and equalize schools. The landmark of these efforts was the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, the ruling that in 1954 declared the clause “separate but equal” unconstitutional and desegregated schools on a federal level. It is completely untrue to say that this ruling has ended educational segregation in the U.S. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators found that “from the 2000–2001 to the 2013–2014 school year, both the percentage of K-12 public schools in high-poverty and the percentage comprised of mostly African-American or Hispanic students grew significantly, more than doubling, from 7,009 schools to 15,089 schools. Not only is the prevalence of segregation in schooling extremely disturbing, but the quality of education for these “isolated” schools, defined by researchers by those in which “75% or more of the students enrolled are of the same race or class”, is dangerously low. Schools of racial and socioeconomic isolation commonly struggle with under qualified teachers, minuscule class offerings, and a higher percentage of students who are suspended, expelled, and/or drop out.

The system we rely on to shape noble and well-informed citizens, public schools, fails to expose students to others who have had different upbringing and experiences. Lack of diversity, both socio-economic and racial, is sheltering youth from the melting pot that is America. It is important to be around others of different backgrounds in order to prevent ignorance and assumptions. The educational system is doing a disservice to low-income families, as well as minority families, who are subject to lack of funding and inherently, a scarcity of resources and staff.The United States is perceived to be a country of widespread opportunity, a harmonious place where everyone can achieve the “American Dream.” How is it that this perception of America reigns around the globe when opportunity in this nation is really only easily accessible to white, relatively wealthy citizens?

In September of last year, the State Superior Court in Hartford issued a controversial ruling. The ruling declared that Connecticut was “defaulting on its constitutional duty to give all children an adequate education.” This court case was a direct response to the horrific findings of the National Assessment of Education Progress who reported that Connecticut, a state famous for high academic achievement and standardized testing, was failing to serve poor children. “The 2015 N.A.E.P. report found that poor students in 40 other states, including perennial poorly performing Mississippi and Arkansas, did better than poor students in Connecticut.” While a statistically significant achievement gap between more affluent areas and poorer areas is prevalent in every state, in Connecticut the difference in qualities of educational facilities, both social and intellectual, are dreadful. While this may sound absurd, a superintendent in Bridgeport, last year, acknowledged that a student attending Bridgeport High School could manage to “graduate while being functionally illiterate.” Meanwhile, privileged towns are spending thousands of dollars on turf sporting fields and iPads for all their students. This is an unrecognized, unethical disaster. The solution may not be clear but what is clear is that there needs to be a solution. Poorer people are not lesser, minority communities are not lesser, but because our nation makes it nearly impossible to have further educational and occupational opportunities, they live a disadvantaged life. States and the federal government need to do a better job of acknowledging equal potential in every American.

The importance of providing every young American with the ability to explore their intellectual potential and become informed about the world around them is more than a theoretical or judicial issue to me. My father works as a school administrator for the nonprofit organization DOMUS, that provides public schools of choice to students with histories of truancy, trauma, and involvement with various social service agencies, in inner-cities in Connecticut. On average, students attending school through the DOMUS Foundation read and compute 5–7 grade levels below their peers. This very real example of educational disparity is dinner table conversation in my home and should be talked about in homes all over America.

The United States has made certain efforts to increase diversity in public schools and provide equal opportunity to our youth. Open-choice programs that allow students from inner-cities to attend the public school of their selection is one of the ways in which states strive for equality in education. However, this program is only an option for a small percentage of the urban population. In order for equality in Education to be achieved, schools in America need to be held to the same standard. The challenge is to “level the playing ground” by changing the way schools are funded. This will likely require that America enforce more federal control over the school system and given the current administration, it is not likely that change will be had anytime soon.