Important new January 2010 Resource: Opportunity Gaps in Public Education Must Be Closed
February 22, 2011: The Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA), a 153 member alliance of which the UCC's Justice & Witness Ministries is a member, released this statement, All Children Deserve the Opportunity to Learn. The statement calls on Congress to work with states to remedy pervasive disparities in school conditions and resources when it addresses the long overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. FEA calls on Congress to recognize that closing opportunity gaps is key to closing achievement gaps.
In 1991, in Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol explored the injustice of school finance opportunity gaps by comparing expenditures and opportunities in America's big cities and their suburbs. Here are the comments of students in an Advanced Placement class in Rye, New York:
"I ask... 'Have we any obligations to poor people?' 'I don't think the burden is on us,' says Jennifer... 'Taxing the rich to help the poor—we'd be getting nothing out of it. I don't understand how it would make a better educational experience for me.' 'A child's in school only six hours in a day,' says Max... David tells me, 'Here's what we should do. Put more money into pre-school, kindergarten, elementary years. Pay college kids to tutor inner-city children. Get rid of the property tax... Pay teachers more to work in places like the Bronx. It has to come from taxes... It seems rather odd... that we are sitting in an AP class discussing whether poor kids in the Bronx deserve to get an AP class. We are in a powerful position."'
That same year the United Church of Christ's General Synod 18 declared:
"More and more of our city schools, forced to rely on a shrinking and aging tax base for local support, find themselves unable to offer education of the quality to be found in suburban schools, schools which are often only a few miles away geographically but light years away in their educational opportunities."
Despite more than 30 years of lawsuits in more than 40 states and the improved funding they have brought, inequity in funding for public education between wealthy and poor school districts continues. The disparity is 3:1 in most states.
Opportunity gaps are the differences in what society provides for children and schools from place to place:
- In some states all children have the right to publicly funded, quality pre-school. Other states do not provide funds for pre-school.
- Some school districts can afford a stable staff of well-qualified and experienced teachers. In other school districts where salaries are lower or conditions challenging, students may be taught by a succession of substitute teachers.
- Some school districts offer courses leading to calculus, advanced lab chemistry and physics, Advanced Placement history and literature, and quality school music programs. Other high schools do not provide lab sciences even though such courses are required by their own state universities.
- Some schools have adequate libraries; computer technology; enough counselors and social workers to assist students with college placement ; and small classes where students are assured the personal assistance of the teacher. In other over-crowded schools personal attention is not guaranteed, and important programs and equipment are unaffordable.
What causes serious gaps in the opportunity to learn?
Though many of the more than 40 school funding lawsuits across the states have been successful, state legislatures in many places, beset with growing expenses and dominated in many places by people who have signed the anti-tax pledges of the Americans for Tax Reform, have not created legislative remedies sizeable enough to ameliorate inequity.
Federal policy in the No Child Left Behind Act demanded that schools equalize outcomes measured by test scores, but the law was largely silent on inequity of inputs. Annual appropriations for Title I have never come close to matching what the law promised.
Federal stimulus funds are pumping nearly $100 billion into state stabilization, Title I and IDEA over these two years, but what would appear to be a massive infusion of new funding is primarily filling holes created by state budgetary shortfalls in the recession. And stimulus funding is only temporary.
To qualify for the $4.3 billion federal stimulus funds set aside for Race to the Top, states are rushing to remove statutory caps on the authorization of new charters and to remove barriers to merit pay for teachers, but Race to the Top contains no significant incentives for reducing opportunity gaps.
Rules that control Title I School Improvement stimulus set aside funds—grants for the struggling schools in "improvement" status because they have been unable to make Adequate Yearly Progress, the very schools likely to lack adequate funding under their state/local systems—require termination of staff, charterization, private management, or school closure, without addressing the core problem of unequal resources across states, within states, and within districts themselves.
Finally, advocates have sometimes ventured to point out that we need to spend more on the education of children in groups historically left far behind. In a well-known 1992 book, An Aristocracy of Everyone, political philosopher Benjamin Barber wrote:
"Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. 'Comparable' here does not mean identical… Schooling allows those born poor to compete with those born rich…"
Despite such moving comments and despite that many of us know that simple parity of resources won't be enough to guarantee real opportunity, there is not any significant discussion today about what it would really cost even to begin to undo the damage of generations of educational injustice… what Gloria Ladson-Billings has called "the education debt."
The late Senator Paul Wellstone said that in a democracy citizens must hold themselves accountable for providing opportunity. Opportunity gaps are not the fault of school children.
"It is simply negligent to force children to pass a test and expect that the poorest children, who face every disadvantage, will be able to do as well as those who have every advantage. When we do this, we hold children responsible for our own inaction and unwillingness to live up to our own promise and our own obligations."