Democratic Underground

The Case For Reforming Public Education
April 14, 2001
by Denis Kennedy

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…"

So wrote Thomas Jefferson to open the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. But Jefferson was obviously not discussing our American system of public education. Ironically, in an area so vital and influential as public education, this precious equality of opportunity could not be farther from the reality. There exists a consistent discrimination based on socioeconomic status, and this bias and lack of concern for others less fortunate could have dangerous implications on our country's quality of education.

Lower income school districts, whose residents typically pay a larger percentage of their meager incomes to support education, are still incapable of providing the level of education found in their more affluent neighboring districts. Their children are being penalized, not for the districts' lack of trying, but for the economic inability to support a comparable education system. Students in these disadvantaged school districts must endure crumbling school buildings, overcrowding, underpaid and under qualified teachers, and, in general, less funding for education. And, despite these iniquities, disadvantaged students must still pass nationwide standards and compete nationwide for spots at universities. Though some of these are issues that affect many American schoolchildren, their affects are most acute in the lower income bracket areas.

The numbers support these assertions of inequalities. One standard used for measuring the relative prosperity of a school district lies in examining the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Naturally, the higher the percentage, the poorer the school district, and, regrettably, the less ability to provide a satisfactory education. Just consider these sobering facts:

  • In school districts where 50% or more of the students qualified for free or reduced lunch, the average age of the school building was an incredible 44 years old. The average age fell to 39 when fewer than 20% of students merited subsidized lunch. Nationwide, 73% of schools were built prior to 1970, and this problem is even more accentuated in less affluent school districts.
  • Teacher quality varies considerably, and directly corresponds with teacher salary. In schools where 60% or more of the students qualify for subsidized lunches, only 37% of the teachers possess master's degrees, compared with 57% of teachers in schools where fewer than 15% of the students qualify. Obviously, the more affluent school districts are able to afford higher quality teachers, and this assertion is further supported when one compares the United States by region. The Northeast, which boasts a remarkable 60% of its public school teachers with master's degrees, pays extremely well. In fact, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania average the top four highest teacher salaries in the nation, paying an average of $50,000. Conversely, the South and the West maintain only 39% and 38% of their teachers with master's degrees, due to the low salaries in states such as Mississippi, which pays teachers an average of only $29,530 per year. This finding merely confirms the age-old adage, you get what you pay for. And, due to overcrowding and small budgets, these cash-poor school districts have neither teacher quality nor quantity.
  • Even when funding figures are adjusted to accommodate regional economic differences in terms of cost of education, less affluent school districts receive the short end. While school districts with fewer than 2% of children living below the poverty level average $7,200 per student, school districts with 10-19% below the poverty line can afford only $5,948 per student. Areas with even more poverty show similar trends.
  • As would be expected, lower income students also enroll in college in vastly differential rates. Students in families earning less than $25,000 are accepted to colleges at a rate of only 46.4%, compared to the rate of 77.3% enjoyed by the progeny of families earning in excess of $75,000. How much of this is the fault of the schools is subject to interpretation, but facts show that when lower income students are guided to take the necessary tests and to study courses required for college admission, their acceptance rates increase dramatically. This is the role that our schools must fill.

It becomes quite evident that our children are not guaranteed an equal education, and therefore an equal preparation for life. Extraordinary inequalities exist in terms of school infrastructure, teacher quality, funding for education, and preparation for higher levels of schooling. Our children and America as a whole are suffering from this shortchanging of public education, especially in the rising global economy and job market. Certainly there is considerable evidence indicating that the United States lags far behind most Western nations in terms of quality of education, especially in the easily compared and vitally important fields of math and science. American industry and technology fields have compensated for American educational deficiencies by "importing" high quality foreign-trained personnel, but this strategy bodes ominously for the future.

It would be foolish to think that by simply ignoring the problem of under funded school districts, it will go away. Indeed, it will not. To liken our American work force to a piece of machinery, weaknesses in other sectors, no matter how far removed, put stress on and disjoint the entire system. We are too intertwined to not worry about others. The disadvantaged school districts drag the rest down with them, like a malignant tumor, seemingly innocuous and minor initially, then growing and spreading. The inequalities in American education present such a tumor.

By consistently ignoring the plight of disadvantaged school districts, Americans are helping to propagate an endless cycle of poverty and lessened opportunity. Equality of opportunity, where each American has an equal chance to succeed, regardless of race, religion, gender, and most importantly, regardless of socioeconomic status, does not exist here. Americans have always relished rags to riches tales, but these tales are increasingly less common in a society where the odds are stacked against those without. Impoverished children attend deficient schools, reinforcing the impression that education is unimportant and that they too are not valued. They are presented severely limited opportunities to succeed, and thus they often do not, dropping out and living their lives as chronic underachievers, failed by the system, much like many of their parents. Ultimately, the job of rehabilitating and supporting these members of society falls to the US government, and, by extension, to the American public. This wasteful, ultimately costly cycle will persist unless broken by an outside source. This is the case for reforming public education.

It is no accident that our Western European allies, with their heavily government-regulated school systems, are able to provide the equality and quality of education that is distressingly lacking in the United States. The governments, by the people, for the people, ensure equality for all, guaranteeing a fair start in life. In education, the government, by necessity, is the outside source that breaks the cycle of underachievement. Admittedly, in the United States, the federal government is viewed with a certain paranoia, a suspicion traceable back to the American Revolution and before. The mere idea of adding power to a governmental agency, in this case the Department of Education, is enough to cause any Republican or Libertarian to break into a cold sweat. But the federal government is the only source with enough available resources and perspective to guarantee greatly increased equality and higher standards in American education, and is thus the necessary expedient for reform.

There are few problems that allow for one cure-all, end-all solution, and education is certainly not one of them. A number of smaller resolutions are needed, all working in conjunction in certain sectors to fix the larger problem. The necessary first cog of this is enhanced federal supervision. It is actually fairly easy to make a case for this. After all, the federal government is supreme in national situations, situations that span beyond state boundaries and affect the populace as a whole. Because our students, hampered as they are by educational inequalities, are still obligated to take nationwide placement tests like the SATs and AP tests and compete against other students for acceptance into college, education becomes a national issue and therefore an issue for the central government. Education need not be entirely federalized, but the federal government should be given the power to serve as a watchdog agency, ensuring that schools are able to meet standards, and a great equalizer, providing the funds necessary to "raise the floor" in disadvantaged school districts that are making an earnest effort, an effort obstructed only by the economic status of the locality.

A federal government as a great equalizer would resolve many of the inequalities in funding, teacher quality, overcrowding, classroom size, and course offerings, raising the bar for education as a whole. This is the single most important expedient for curing America's educational woes. It is not the cure-all though; other steps are required. Even with these funds and increased budgets, most school districts would still be hard pressed to deal with the infrastructure issue, especially pertaining to the age and safety of our school buildings. Thus, the second part of this educational plan involves a predicament that adversely affects most American school districts, but especially the disadvantaged ones. Jonathan Kozol once estimated that it would take $200 billion to bring all of America's schools to acceptable levels of safety. Though this cost figure has doubtlessly risen somewhat, this would be money well spent. A federal initiative such as this, needed only once to resolve our schools' crumbling infrastructure issue, would bring our schools to meet national standards of safety, save on future costs of repairs, and give our children the positive impression that learning matters. It would also provide a temporary positive economic influx to these poverty-stricken areas and present the opportunity for a New Deal style program, perhaps providing government-sponsored jobs while employing local residents to help repair the schools.

The final facet of this educational reform plan works to resolve the last major issue affecting our disadvantaged public schools: access to higher education. The facts show that students in destitute school districts have vastly differential rates of enrollment in college, and this final idea would help remedy this situation. Attainment of a college education is crucial in today's society; failure to do so is a prime cause for the previously referred to cycle of underachievement keeping our socioeconomically low citizens in a sort of bondage. To help break this cycle, it would be wise to provide federal funding to states to enable them to furnish their honors students with scholarships to state universities. Similar plans exist already in Texas and California, and provide students in failing schools a vital opportunity to improve themselves, to break the cycle of poverty, and to gain a worthwhile job, bettering both themselves and the US economy. Students are given a lifeline, a way to succeed despite the circumstances.

The reforms inherent in this three-pronged educational plan are necessary, urgently important, but do not come without a price, or in this case, a price tag. Monetary restraints should not be an excuse for ignoring the issue of education, and in recognition of this I have proposed a number of funding solutions. Perhaps not all of them are necessary, but I propose them nonetheless to illustrate the fact that the funds are available, without need for large sacrifices or tax hikes.

One area capable of providing the necessary funding is the budget surplus. It would be wise, in this time of prosperity, to look to the future, to be proactive in the area of educational reform. Economic prosperity is ephemeral, and it makes little sense to return most of it in a $1.6 trillion tax cut. A small percentage of this tax cut, spent on our schools, would be a downpayment on the future. Since the vast majority of the tax cut would go to benefit corporate tycoons and the rest of the upper bracket, a smaller tax cut, combined with a reformed educational system, would help all.

Voucher funds, which would benefit only a token few American children and would still not be enough to aid the truly impoverished families, would also provide ample monetary support to fuel these educational reforms. The reforms would help all children and enhance American public education, two things vouchers could never do.

There remain still other sources of educational funding. We live in a time of great peace and prosperity, safely ensconced as the world's sole superpower. Without enemies of great magnitude, the proposed large increases in the Defense budget are suddenly frivolous and unnecessary. We should scale down these increases and concentrate on domestic issues. Another area concerns the internet. Here I am not proposing a tax; one seems inevitable. But a small tax on internet sales would serve as a luxury tax and also enable our struggling flesh-and-blood stores, which provide a good presence to the community, to better compete against the unaccountable internet warehouses. A moderate internet sales tax could be reserved for education.

Eventually, if educational reforms are enacted and the vicious cycle of underachievement is broken, a stronger, more capable workforce will emerge. All Americans will be guaranteed an equal start in life. This is a vision for the future, and the required expedient is federal educational reform, to raise the floor, balance the inequalities, and, through public education, return America to its place as the land of equal opportunity. Someday, perhaps, all Americans will be created equal. The necessary route is through educational reform.

All statistics, unless otherwise noted, are derived from the National Center for Education Statistics website, Information on teacher salaries gleaned from the National Education Association website,


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