America's School System is Failing Families More Than Ever—Parents and Educators Can Be Part of the Overhaul
Next year, Keisha L. Green will send her daughter to kindergarten. The University of Massachusetts Amherst associate professor of teacher education and curriculum studies is a big supporter of public education, but she's considering enrolling her daughter in a private school. She's worried that the schools in her community of Springfield, Massachusetts won't give her child an optimal experience.
"I am torn," says Green, who also has an infant son. "I feel like we might be experimenting with our children's educational trajectories by enrolling in public schools."
Green, who is Black, points out that schools in Springfield, a more urban area, spend about $17,000 per pupil, while schools in Amherst, a more suburban community where she works, spend about $23,000 per pupil.
"As a professor in the field of education, my decisions about where to send my children to school are complicated by my idealism for what public schools could be and by what I know to be the realities of public schools, especially for African American and working class families," says Green, who holds a doctorate from Emory University.
Across the United States there's a wide variety in the quality of public schools. Some schools feature the latest technology, several opportunities for students to explore interests in the arts or sports, top-notch facilities, and an extensive list of course offerings, while others struggle to provide the basics. Their buildings may be crumbling. They tend to offer few advanced courses and electives, and they might not have tablets or computers to distribute to students. These disparities were exacerbated by the pandemic.
Child Trends, a research organization based in Maryland, tracks data related to children living in poverty. It found that in 2020 the number of kids living in poverty increased. During the pandemic, child poverty grew nearly two percentage points. That translates to about 12.5 million children living in poverty in the U.S. In 2019, 1.2 million fewer children were living below the poverty line. Black and brown children were hit the hardest. Among Latinx children the poverty rate jumped from 23 percent to 27 percent. It went from 26 percent to 29 percent among Black children.
When many schools went to distance learning during the pandemic, wealthier school districts provided the means for students to keep up, while in many cases, students at schools without a lot of resources floundered. At the end of 2020, the consulting group McKinsey & Company released a report that found that, on average, students of color started the 2020-2021 school year about three to five months behind in math. Their white counterparts were about one to three months behind. McKinsey found that in the fall of 2020 Black and Hispanic students were more likely to still be learning remotely, though "less likely to have access to the prerequisites of learning—devices, internet access, and live contact with teachers."
The fear is that COVID is causing the opportunity gap to grow, which refers to the disparity in standardized test scores and other education outcomes between white students and Black and Latinx students.
Making school funding more equitable is seen as a viable way to close that gap. Academic research has shown that when kids from low-income families attend well-funded schools they're more likely to graduate high school and less likely to live in poverty as adults.
Researchers in this area tend to focus on equity rather than equality. That's due to the fact that schools that serve students from low-income families need more funding rather than equal funding with wealthier districts to provide resources that will lead to similar outcomes.
Causes of Disparities
What causes these disparities? Experts in the field point to many factors.
"Education inequity is, in part, connected to historic, systemic, and structural racism, coupled with economic disparities that result in unequal access to quality education," says Green. "So, communities of color and working-class families most likely end up in second-class school environments."
High poverty school districts tend to be concentrated in majority Black and brown communities, areas that historically have been economically depressed. Many districts rely heavily on property taxes to fund schools, and low-income communities simply don't have the tax base to provide adequate funding.
A 2019 report by Edbuild, a nonprofit that studied school funding, found that predominantly white districts in the U.S. receive $23 billion more in funding than districts that primarily serve students of color.
"Inequalities manifest in many ways including curricular options, accessibility of the school to parents and families, availability of space, trained teachers or teacher turnover rate, advanced-level courses, [and] disproportionate rates of disciplinary practices among Black and brown students," says Green.
The Fight for Equity
In light of these inequities, some states are rethinking their school funding formulas, while in some other states, parents say not enough is being done. A group of parents in Pennsylvania is taking the state to court over inequitable funding.
"In Pennsylvania, what you really have is the resources available for a child extraordinarily reliant on the wealth of the community they come from," says Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. "As a result, in a heavily segregated state, low-wealth communities can't afford to give their children the education they deserve and they're entitled to under the state constitution."
Gretchen Walker is a mom who has seen this firsthand. She grew up in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia.
"I had access to any number of arts opportunities there," says Walker, who is a professional musician. "I had choir. I had bell choir. I had the possibility to star in an operetta in fifth grade. We had great facilities."
Now that she's raising her kids in Philadelphia, she sees stark differences between her school experience and theirs.
"A lot of schools didn't have art, didn't have music, and if they did, [the] instruments were broken," says Walker.
She also points to major problems with school buildings and infrastructure at her kids' elementary school.
"They didn't have air conditioning," says Walker. "They had overcrowding."
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that one school in the city was forced to go to virtual learning for the first four days of school in August due to problems with an ongoing construction project that left the school with "exposed damaged asbestos, thick layers of dust, and a lack of adequate indoor bathrooms."
Walker, who is white, says the population at her kids' elementary school was about 90 percent children of color with the vast majority being Black.
Now her kids attend a magnet school with a disproportionately white student body.
"That goes back to access and wealth and privilege and how those shake down on color lines," says Walker, who has joined her school's elected advisory committee in the hopes of finding ways to increase equity for students district-wide.
Irvin Scott is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He's also a former urban high school teacher and principal. He says parents in a position of privilege have an important role to play in ensuring our nation's schools become more equitable.
"Oftentimes, it requires those individuals to understand that my kids have privileges that other kids don't have, and if I'm okay with that, then that's a problem," says Scott. "If I'm not okay with that, then I have to understand what could possibly be done to change that?"
Scott, who holds a doctorate in education leadership from Harvard, says doing research and asking questions is a great place to start. He suggests parents ask about the demographics of their child's school and about how various groups are faring academically. If they notice disparities, they should speak out to effect change. He suggests the understand-question-advocacy model.
"That is fundamentally what parents do for their kids," says Scott. "Families who are privileged, they seek to understand what's happening for their kids. If they don't like it, they question, and if they don't get the answer, then they advocate for certain things. If more parents did that basic thing for children who didn't look like their children, we'd get a lot further in equity across the country."
Some experts suggest these parents may want to direct their advocacy beyond their child's school, district, or even state. It may take a federal response to achieve true equity in school funding.