Even though the United States Constitution may promise we are created equally, not all of us are treated that way. In America, the single greatest predictor of a child’s potential in life–such as health, wealth, and happiness–is her parent’s socioeconomic status, more so than race, gender, and even individual initiative (Corak, 2013; Reardon, 2011; Garland, 2013; Kim & Park, 2015; Anderson et al., 2012). Nowhere is the impact of money–and the life opportunities it can afford–more significant than in the education system.
The American education system is funded by property taxes, so the wealth and income of a citizen of a school district is conferred to her neighbors and their children. Depending on how districts are drawn, this could lead to an equitable distribution of funds, but it is not. People tend to be segregated along social class and income, and this socioeconomic segregation has only been increasing in the past 40 years, an inequality that is then transferred to the schools (Bischoff & Reardon, 2014; Owens, Reardon, & Jencks, 2016). Put another way, those who can afford it tend to move to more expensive neighborhoods with more well-funded school districts, and the income is distributed to the schools unequally. Even though they make up 80 percent of citizens, lower- and middle-income families receive only 25 percent of the money spent on education in the United States (Corak, 2013; Pew Research Center, 2016). For instance, in the suburbs of Chicago, the Chicago Ridge School District spends $9,794 per student per year compared to the $28,639 spent in the Rondout District in Lake Forest, an affluent suburb on the north shore (Turner et al., 2016). As you might expect, this substantial difference in funding has significant effects on students. In Chicago Ridge, students share one nurse between three schools and the art and music teacher only spends half the year at each of two schools, while in Lake Forest, each student has their own individualized learning plan (Turner et al., 2016). When considering facts like these, it may be no surprise that children from poor to middle-class backgrounds are, on average, three to six years behind their rich peers (Reardon, 2011). That’s like skipping middle school, at minimum.
The average spending per student varies considerably from state to state and county to county based in large part to the income drawn from property taxes and whether or not the state compensates for differences in income (Turner et al., 2016)
Socioeconomic inequality is not the only inequality the American education system has had to contend with. For much of the country’s history, race was the single greatest predictor of one’s life outcomes, and this was no less true in education than elsewhere in social life. The landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 ended formal racial segregation in schools–a case that was in no small part influenced by psychological research (NAACP, 2014)!–but to actually implement the decision, civil rights advocates had to force the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision through social protest after social protest, court case after court case, act of bravery after act of bravery (Library of Congress, 2004). The Civil Rights Movement was a monumental transformation of American life made all the more remarkable by the cumulative effect of each individual effort.
Norman Rockwell’s (1964) depiction of Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by U.S. marshals (as retrieved from This American Life, 2015). Bridges herself visited the White House to see the painting hanging outside the Oval Office and posed with President Obama in front of it (Brown, 2011)
One major part of the Civil Rights Movement is the busing programs that transported students to different schools to increase integration and diversity. These students often faced considerable adversity, from racial epithets to all-out riots (Library of Congress, 2004), but the individuals who participated–whether as a student or a teacher–were doing their part to end segregation, and they reported being fundamentally changed by it years and decades later (Wells et al., 2005; Savage & Khan, 2016). For the students of minority backgrounds who were bused to wealthier schools with mostly or only racial majority classmates–and it was almost always in this direction rather than the reverse, as white families tended to flee the city rather than have their own children participate–the transported students fared far better academically than did students who stayed in neighborhood schools with improved rates of high school completion, college attendance, and college graduation as well as higher income levels as adults (The United States Commission, 1972; Tegeler, Mickelson, & Bottia, 2011). More than this, students of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds were bettered by integrated, heterogeneous schools; they experience benefits ranging from improved academic performance to reductions in prejudice (Mickelson, 2015). Beyond the individual level, the racial gap in math and reading scores was lowest between white and black students during the busing program years (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012). It might be a surprise to learn that such considerable societal effects were caused by such a small number of students: Perhaps only 2 to 4 percent of students who used transportation to school were part of a desegregation program (The United States Commission on Civil Rights, 1972). Even if they were few in number, these individuals had a remarkable effect on society, carrying forward their increased tolerance and respect for others throughout life, attitudes they may never have developed otherwise given high rates of social segregation (Wells et al., 2005). With such considerable advantages at the individual, community, and national levels, it seems remarkable that the program ended at all.
Students hold hands during the second stage of Boston’s integration efforts (image from NPR, 2004)
But end it did, despite the considerable benefits for those involved. Due in part to political pressure, defunding, and racism, federal judges stopped mandating busing programs, and as a result fewer black children attended integrated schools in 1980 than in 1954, before desegregation began (Faragher et al., 2012). As a result, the racial gap in academic achievement has grown again. It is now so substantial that it even outweighs the effects of many of the positive gains made by racial minorities since the 1960s, such as family income (Eaton, 2011). Given that both racial and socioeconomic segregation have been on the rise, it may be no coincidence that inequalities in wealth and income are higher now between races and social classes than ever before (Faragher et al., 2012). In fact, income inequality may actually be higher now in the United States than at any other point in history anywhere in the world (Cassidy, 2014; Stiglitz, 2014). Such inequalities tend to percolate and fester, only growing more noxious and potent if unaddressed.
Yet address it we can. American education does not have to emphasize the social differences between its citizens; instead, it can be a great equalizer from which all are afforded an equal opportunity to pursue their own potential. The simplest intervention is to simply redraw school districts to ensure greater equality (Owens et al., 2016). Indeed, students in such an equitable district who lived in public housing but attended a higher-income school fared far better than their peers who went to a lower-income school (Schwartz, 2010). If equitable redistricting and rezoning plans are be implemented or enforced, then the amount of spending per student can be better standardized. This would reduce relative deprivation, a social psychological concept that posits poverty and wealth are relevant only when compared to one’s peers (Kwantes, Bergeron, & Kaushal, 2012), as well as increase education quality for millions. In other words, reducing relative deprivation would mean no longer would some be afforded a more equal education than others. If redistricting were not enough, federal funds could more adequately supplement school budgets so spending per student would be more equitable. Although the proportion varies widely from state to state, when averaged across the country only about 9 percent of funding for public schools comes from the federal government compared to 47 percent from the state and 45 percent from the local government (The Educational Finance Branch, 2016). An increased amount of federal funding could therefore bridge the socioeconomic gap at the local and state levels to reduce relative deprivation. The aforementioned proposals would perhaps be best as they would reflect change on a macro scale; however, if micro programs may be more easily implemented, another potential intervention is to bring back busing to better integrate schools across racial and socioeconomic statuses. If busing the students to better schools is unfeasible, some suggest moving them and their families like with a voucher program. When families with students 13 or younger moved from a low- to a high-income neighborhood, the students had higher rates of school completion, college attendance, and incomes as an adult (Chetty, Hendren, & Katz, 2015). These results are remarkably similar to those of the early desegregation-by-bus intervention, and perhaps their success is due to a similar underlying cause: Students succeed when they are granted the environment and opportunity to do so, and they and their classmates all benefit from the improved equality and diversity.
Women making signs ahead of a 1964 boycott of New York City schools to encourage the district to desegregate; the boycott became the largest civil rights protest in American history (Khan, 2016)
Ultimately, the school a child attends may be the largest factor in determining the education she receives, and her family and neighborhood income is the largest factor in determining the quality of that education. Indeed, characteristics of the school–such the heterogeneity of its student population and teachers’ preference for middle-class students–account for 40 percent of the differences between schools students’ academic performance, a greater percentage than any other factor including characteristics of the families (Borman & Dowling, 2010). Although the report did not consider spending per student, Borman and Dowling’s (2010) results suggest that once again, American schools are a prime target for an intervention to increase justice and equality for all. One question remains: Do we have the courage to change?
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