eq·ui·ty. noun. Quality of being fair and impartial.Source: Google.
e·qual·i·ty. noun. the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities.Source: Google.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.The Declaration of Independence, second paragraph
What does it mean, all men are created equal?
The question was posed to me and my classmates in one of my classes this term, a class called School and Society. Several people gave vague, long-winded answers about racial and social equality, how everyone deserves to start in the same place — and while these were all answers talking about equality, I don’t believe that they hit upon what the Founding Fathers were getting at when they penned the Declaration. The Founding Fathers were saying something much simpler. Not that all men are born equal, as in not that they are born in the same circumstances, with the same opportunities, but that they are created equal. That in each of us resides a divine spark of humanity which cannot be taken away: it is unalienable, given to us by God, science, by virtue of being human, or by whatever you might choose to believe, and that because we each own this divine spark, this thing that sets us apart, we are guaranteed “certain unalienable Rights,” rights that cannot be taken away.
Created equal. Not born equal.
Some of my classmates, though, seemed to believe that the Declaration of Independence spoke to equality between individuals. To that response, my professor passed around copies of Kurt Vonnegut’s landmark short story “Harrison Bergeron.” I believe I’ve linked it here before. If you haven’t read it, then you must — and then you must imagine what it would be like to live in a society of perfect equality. Which was not, for the record, what the Founding Fathers were advocating.
But they were advocating for equality of rights — at least among white, landowning men. Since then, these rights have been extended to American women, to black Americans, to Asian Americans, to the LGBTQ+ community of America… Notice my emphasis on American. To some extent, equality of rights has been extended to everyone living within America. But not all the way. Undocumented immigrants and even legal ones living only temporarily in America, like migrant workers, aren’t always granted the full docket of rights.
Did the Founding Fathers say “All Americans are created equal,” or “All men are created equal”?
This may disappoint some of you, but I’m not here to make a big statement about immigration reform or any of the above. I’m merely here to see where I can poke holes, in an attempt to help you think about these issues from a clearer standpoint. The real topic today is EDUCATION INEQUITY, that is, a lack of fairness and justice in education on the local, state-wide, and national levels. My final note will concern how the current coronavirus pandemic has affected education inequity.
At some point along the line, Americans decided that access to public education was one of those unalienable rights. This shows in our nationwide system of public schools; it also shows in our mantra that education is the way out of violence and poverty, both here in America and around the world. Want to lower the birthrate in developing countries? Sponsor education. Want to nip terrorism in the bud? Sponsor education. Want to raise the overall quality of life? Again, sponsor education. Build schools, not bombs.
At least, this is the way it could be if idealistic, open-minded, big-hearted people ran the White House and all the outreach organizations associated with this country. And it is this way, in some ways. America sponsors education in a large number of countries and regions around the world, in the hopes of achieving a more educated global population and a better tomorrow.
But in the United States itself, the commitment to free, universal public education stands on shaky ground. Over the couple centuries of public education in this country, education inequity has grown, not shrunk. All this despite the education reform movement, despite desegregation, despite the countless thousands who have spoken up for public education, despite the millions who have served in public schools.
School segregation, whether drawn along the bounds of race or socioeconomic class, tends to lie near the heart of education inequity. The schools with the richer kids (who tend to be the whiter kids) get better funding and have better parent involvement which in turn gets them even better funding through PTOs and PTAs and parent-run activities and fundraisers and the like. Meanwhile, the poorer schools lose funding — as a result of poor scores on statewide examinations — and suffer from low parent involvement. There are a lot of reasons for this. Low-income parents work more to support their families on less. They may be poorly educated themselves and may feel unable to participate actively in their children’s education. Perhaps there’s a “cultural” reason, though I would disagree with this. I choose to believe that, at the core, every parent hopes that their child will have the best education possible, and every parent does what he or she can to help their child achieve that. But the “what he or she can” runs a whole gambit of possibilities, from simply putting dinner on the table or getting a roof over the child’s head to shelling out thousands of dollars for private tutors and test-prep.
The thing is, I actually believe that having many social classes is natural and healthy. What is not natural and healthy is that, in the realm of education, a poor child does not receive the same education that a rich child would in the same public school system. In my hometown of Medford, Massachusetts, there are four elementary schools. One undoubtedly has a higher standard of education and a higher degree of parent involvement than the other three. No surprise, it also has the highest standardized test scores. And, again no surprise, it caters to kids in the richest part of town.
A real atrocity of the system in Medford lies around the two middle schools, which are on neighboring lots near the center of the city. Over the course of roughly ten years, one of the middle schools achieved a distinct advantage over the other in terms of standardized test scores, number of students in Algebra in the eighth grade, and the whole gambit of “student achievement” measurements. At the same time, a disparity emerged: the “good” middle school had far fewer kids on free and reduced lunch than the “bad” middle school, and the “bad” middle school had more non-white students than the “good” middle school. At some point, the city also made the damning decision (in my eyes) to station the single middle school EL (English Learner) program at the “bad” middle school, leading to a further reduction in test scores and a tapering off of that school’s desirability in the eyes of wealthy Medford parents, who all sent their children to the “good” middle school or to private and parochial schools.
Last year, in an attempt to curb inequity, Medford’s new superintendent, Dr. Marice Edouard-Vincent, and the School Committee passed in conjunction a bill to populate the middle schools by lottery. That is, the parents of fifth grade students attend a lottery to find out where their children would attend sixth grade, instead of electing which school they would like their child to attend on a form. In conversation with a source who I won’t identify here, I learned that some affluent parents are still pulling out all the stops to get their children into the “good” middle school, by phoning the principal and asking for a transfer.
This is education inequity at work in a single school system.
Education inequity, though, is also a big-picture issue, one that plays out across states and across the whole country. Massachusetts, to start big, has one of the best public education systems (maybe the best) in the country, which is to say that children in, say, Louisiana or New Mexico don’t receive the same quality of education as they would in Massachusetts. Is this fair?
Well, maybe if you were examining the issue with an eye for states’ rights. If a state could guarantee the same education across all of its cities and towns, then it might be fair. But the truth is that states don’t guarantee that. Glaring inequities exist even in states with top-notch public education, like Massachusetts. Suburban school districts, such as those belonging to Winchester, Arlington, Lexington, Concord-Carlisle, and Lincoln-Sudbury literally boast the best public education in the country, a public education comparable to the best private education available in the country. If you live in Lexington, MA, you probably don’t send your kids to private school. There’s no point.
But beneath this veneer of brilliant public school districts with new, glassy schools and highly-educated teachers, there exists another side to the Massachusetts public school system: the plight of urban schools in Boston, Chelsea, Cambridge, Springfield, and, to some extent, Medford, coupled to the similar yet different plight of rural school districts in Western Massachusetts. The Boston Public School system, in particular, still suffers from the failed desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. I say failed because the efforts did not result in a less-segregated school system; they resulted in a more segregated one, as wealthy families took flight to the suburbs or put their children into private schools to avoid desegregation. It was not about busing. It was about desegregation.
And, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and the tumult it has caused in public school systems across the country, we’ve obtained a mirror into education inequity. While richer districts have been able to hand out Apple computers and count on their students having access to technology that makes distance learning not only possible but completely realistic, poorer districts have been hampered by the need to ensure free-and-reduced lunches while attempting to cobble together a plan for distance learning without being able to assume that all of their students will have access to necessities like wireless networks. Day by day, the education gap widens. With it widens education inequity.