Disparities in political power undermine education equity

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Those of us who are career educators know the veracity of the old saying, “Every education decision is a political decision.” This is especially evident in how school districts and their elected school boards distribute resources. In most school districts, affluent families with political influence have access to more and better resources than lower-income families with less political influential.

Teaching, for example, is the most valuable asset school districts distribute. Research shows that Inexperienced first-year teachers are much more likely to teach in high-poverty schools than in schools serving affluent families.

This disparity in political influence and resource allocation undermines public education’s mission of providing every child with an equal opportunity to succeed. This inequity is highlighted in a recent report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce called “Born to Win, Schooled to Lose.”

The Georgetown researchers examined the relationship between student potential, academic achievement, and family affluence and found that family affluence (i.e., income and social capital) has a greater impact on student achievement than student potential. Instead of promoting social mobility, these researchers found that our K-12 education system perpetuates class and racial inequalities.

The authors summarized their key findings as follows. 

·       “Our existing systems distribute opportunity based on income, class status, race, and ethnicity rather than hard work and talent.”

·         Among children who show similar academic potential in kindergarten, the test scores of economically disadvantaged students are more likely to decline and stay low during elementary, middle, and high school than the test scores of their high-SES peers.”

·       Family class plays a greater role than high school test scores in college attainment.”

·       “Only by amending the inequities in our education system will we achieve anything close to equitable economic and social outcomes in society.”

These findings are not surprising. Public education has never been able to provide every child with an equal opportunity to succeed. And it’s not because people aren’t trying. The problem is systemic. Our current public education system isn’t capable of delivering excellence and equity no matter how hard our educators, parents, and students try, or how much money we spend.

We need a better system.

The education choice movement’s strategy for improving public education starts with giving low-income families more power. First, by giving them more control over their child’s public education funds, and second, by giving them more information about which education choices will most benefit their child.

The Georgetown report identifies unequal access to out-of-school learning opportunities as a huge source of inequality. The education choice movement concurs and advocates giving lower-income families Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to help pay for some of the same afterschool and summer education programs that more affluent families enjoy.

We can’t reduce the achievement disparities in public education without first reducing the political inequalities that have their basis in race and class. The empowerment strategies being advocated by today’s education choice movement are a good place to start.

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