A Quality Education is a Civil Right

Blog post: https://lukelaurie.wordpress.com/

The following was originally published in the Santa Maria Times August 13, 2006:

In states across the Nation, we have funding structures for public education that serve to redistribute wealth disproportionately to the wealthy, and away from the minorities and the poor. These funding structures deny enrichment opportunities and economic equalization to under-served populations. From coast to coast, the wealthiest schools spend ten times as much on their students as the poorer ones, and thus provide the ultimate social obstacle to our youth.

No Child Left Behind requires that all students across America produce the same results (at least as compared to their same-state peers), but does nothing to level the unequal playing field. In fact, NCLB includes what is being called the “Diversity Penalty.” The schools that have the greatest diversity, and serve the neediest students, have the toughest testing requirements. Schools that serve populations that are not at-risk have the easiest requirements. Schools, students, and teachers are held accountable for social and economic factors over which they have no control. Our poorest kids are taught in the largest classes, in the worst facilities, with the fewest textbooks, the fewest computers, the narrowest curriculum, and with the least qualified teachers. They are in schools and classrooms that are segregated by race, socioeconomic status, and by the languages they speak. They are less likely to learn music, to study science, or to have the full breadth of opportunities available in the wealthiest schools. Under No Child Left Behind, these schools are labeled as ‘failing schools’, and are threatened under duress to fix themselves, while still being denied the resources that could improve them.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. the Board of Education(1954) that segregation in public schools was a violation of Civil Rights, by the reasoning that students in segregated schools could never have the same opportunities. Yet to this day, we have schools that are segregated, not as a matter of policy, but still as a matter of fact. California, like many states in the nation, does not provide, nor does it make an effort to provide an equal education to all students. Local tax bases, local government actions, and the realities of demographics allow for strikingly different educational experiences in different localities. Without exception, the areas that serve the poor and minorities have less access to resources and inferior facilities, than those that serve the wealthy.

Plessy vs. Fergusen, (1896) ruled long before Brown that services provided to minorities must be equal. This case established that “Separate but Equal” accommodations are Constitutional. To this day, we have services in public schools that are separate, but definitely not equal. Public school resources are glaringly unequal. Some districts in CA spend as little as 5,000 dollars to educate a student for one year, while in others, they’ll spend as much as 30,000 dollars on each child. By comparison, we spend more than 40,000 on each inmate in CA prisons.

Why have we created structures that permit the existence of poor schools? These schools are full of professionals who must make tough economic decisions. They must decide which programs to eliminate, which child will not receive services, and how many kids should they should risk putting in a class before there will be complete anarchy. No one is comfortable making these decisions, but they must, because they are inadequately funded. Great teachers must decide whether they should stay and serve the students who need them the most, in schools where there are tremendous performance pressures, or go to schools where they will not face the pressure of being labeled as failing; where they will have greater access to resources, where they will have the freedom to teach well, instead of teaching to the test.

Federal legislation should require states to develop funding structures that are not just equitable, but provide even greater resources to under-served populations of kids. New paradigms for funding should have baseline service requirements: requiring adequate access to counselors, low teacher-students ratios, instructional aides, and access to specialists who can teach special education, reading, music, art, and science. If not, we are failing to fulfill the requirements of Plessy vs. Fergusen, and coming nowhere near Brown vs. the Board.

We are constantly looking at education from an economic perspective in terms of absolute dollars, forgetting that a quality education is the ultimate investment in the future of humanity, and potentially the strongest force of equalization. Education spending has always been compromised and perceived as a burden. We bemoan the inefficiencies and waste in education spending, yet we have never tried the great experiment; to over-invest in the future. As it stands now, education is not the great equalizer, but a great barrier to equal opportunities in America.

Must we return to the Supreme Court?

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