Monday, June 13, 2011

A New Twist on School Inequity

Educational inequity is nothing new.  In 1896 the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson  declared "separate but equal" schools were legal. Of course, schools were never equal, and finally, in 1954, through Brown v. Board of Education, the Court ruled that school segregation was illegal.  Hence, bussing came into being; in order to create racially integrated schools kids had to be bussed from different neighborhoods, since those neighborhoods were (and in many cases still are) segregated.  And we all lived happily every after, right?  Not exactly.  Through a series of more recent court decisions, bussing and the integration it ensured was no longer deemed mandatory, and, the saying goes, geography now does the work that the Jim Crow laws once did.  Racially segregated neighborhoods once again result in racially segregated public schools. Back to separate.  But are they equal?  

No.  Because of the way we fund (or in some cases, fail to fund) public education, poorer areas (mostly urban but some rural, too) have less money to spend on education, so their schools have fewer resources.  A pivotal scene in my young adult novel, The R Word, explores this inequity when the characters in the novel visit each others' schools.  Rachel, the white protagonist, is shocked and shamed to discover that her new friends' mostly African American, urban school is not so nice compared to her suburban school.  You see, she's always taken her school for granted -- it's just a "regular" public school, she's always thought.  I wrote that scene several years ago, and the sad fact is that school funding is more of an issue now than ever.  The slashing of state budgets around the country is hitting public schools everywhere, and especially hard hit are the already under-resourced urban schools. Well that's sad, you might be thinking, but what can you do?  We all have to tighten our belts in this rough economy.

As my mother used to say, one thing leads to another.  All this tightening of belts is leading to more and more privatization of public schools.  That means that private corporations running charter schools are taking over low-achieving urban public schools.  Governor Christie of NJ is proposing this, and, like educational inequity, it's nothing new.  It was done in Philly and other place years ago, with mixed results.  But did you know that in some places, like New York, privately run charter schools exist in the same building as the publicly run school?  And since the private corporations use private funds for these public charter schools (charter schools are free, public schools -- parents do not pay tuition), there's more money and more resources to be had. 

So now we have the odd situation of unequal schools housed in the same building.  As NAACP president Ben Jealous describes, "Classrooms with peeling paint and insufficient resources sit on one side, while new computers, smartboards and up-to-date textbooks line the other. One group of students is taught in hallways and cramped basements, while others under the same roof make use of fully functional classrooms."*  What does this have to do with racial inequity?  Are these schools racially segregated?  Not necessarily.  Most charter schools in urban areas accept kids through a lottery system.  However, we do need to ask ourselves a few questions.  Why were the urban schools failing in the first place?  Do we value public education, and, if so, why do we fund our schools unequally?  Why do we depend on private, profit-making corporations to education some, but not others, of our children? Why do urban kids need to "get lucky" through a lottery system in order to receive a decent education?  The answers to those questions have everything to do with race and social class.  Because one thing leads to another.



  1. Thanks for covering this topic! I have been watching the news for months connecting what is happening to issues of race and equality, and it helps to see someone else make the connections I have been contemplating. It has gotten frustrating to hear government officials boasting the greatness of privatization, especially when nothing is ever mentioned about fixing the system we already have.

    Governor Corbitt's proposal for vouchers is another news topic I've been following closely. What the news does not explain well is how this proposal will impact urban students and really just further irritate a festering sore in our current system.... The Philadelphia Student Union wrote an article on this not too long ago pointing out:

    “The amount of money that a student would actually receive wouldn’t even be enough to afford tuition at most private schools. The majority of low-income families will not be able to make up the difference.”

    On top of this, failing public schools will be further pushed into debt and under resourced, because money will be in essence taken from the public to private school system. For those students who can't afford to go to "better" schools even with the voucher will be lumped back into the public system that will continue to become worse. The real question is though, WHO will these students be? Is it a coincidence that they will be ethnic "minorities?" I definitely don't think that is the case.

    All in all, Why can't we work with what we have and make it better? At least this is the question that I have. We need to eradicate the inequalities we have in the current system before we support a new system, least the inequalities grow and spread.

    I am going to be posting a blog on vouchers soon, so check in on us!

  2. Agreed -- looking forward to your post!