Rich kids insulated from poor schools, poor kids left in the cold

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(Kevin Dooley/Flickr Creative Commons)

Those who must butt heads with inequality, directly or otherwise, will agree that not everything is fair in the world. It seems so obvious that there is still a long way to go before there is equal opportunity for all. Despite this, a psychology study found that attractive people are more likely to believe the world is just, and the flawed idea that bootstrapping can lift anyone out of poverty is still prevalent. Those who do not experience injustice just have a harder time conceptualizing it.

To put another way, it is hard for people to recognize and admit their own privileges. I completely understand the misuse and connotations of this term, but it does have some merit here. Not everyone is born into the same world, and not everyone has the same condition of upbringing. I cannot think of a better example of this than education.

Public schools are funded in large part locally. In 2014, 45 percent of revenue for elementary and secondary schools came from local sources, with another 46 percent coming from the state. Obviously, individual districts vary wildly. Generally, though, taxpayers (and particularly property tax payers) put in a lot of money for their district’s schools.

This can be a great thing. Of course, people want the best education for their children, and by paying their own money to property taxes, they can directly improve their kids’ schools. In fact, parents who pay more can group together and collectively make a much better school. The system works … for those with the means (read: money) to live in richer towns and neighborhoods.

If this conception of how education funding plays out sounds similar to private schools, that’s because it is. Public schools in rich, isolated communities can often feel like private schools in terms of quality, atmosphere and demographics. Just look at Greenwich, whose high school has 42 varsity sports, provides Chromebooks for all students, and sorts kids into “houses” with separate counselors and aid. 2700 students would be backbreaking for many school systems, but not one with the resources of Greenwich. For those in support of school choice, this may not seem like a problem, but more on that later.

The issue with this is the disparity between resources available to schools and children because of conditions outside their control. Some public schools have college counselors and outreach programs and research involvement opportunities. Some schools have a constantly-rotating administration and not enough space for the student load. These differences stack up. Kids with college coaching are more likely to get into better universities, while kids without the ability to go to clubs because they have a single parent working around the clock often don’t even have college on their mind. Even earlier, fifth graders who have the opportunity to visit China or Italy for a school trip likely have a lot more positive outlook than fifth graders who can’t even get breakfast in the morning. With all of this, it should be no surprise that people rarely vary much from the income bracket of their parents.

To proponents of private schools, the argument is that people can choose what school is best for their children. This is just capitalism. However, it is unfair to punish the children of the poor unilaterally. There are so many factors at play that those less well-off simply cannot make the best choice. Other than school quality, there is proximity, culture, and so much more to consider. Rich parents can work around these limitations. Poor parents cannot, limiting choices for their kids through no fault of the children’s. This is not equal opportunity, this is just unethical capitalism.

Am I blaming good school districts for attracting more well-off parents? No. Am I blaming the rich parents or children for wanting the best education? Of course not, I would do the same. I am simply asking people to consider the opportunities they have had as a result of their schooling and upbringing. To consider how their life has been shaped by these opportunities, how they rack up. To consider what life would be like without these opportunities, how life is for many students.

After these considerations, question whether the way we fund our schools is fair and equitable. I think there needs to be a change.


Peter Fenteany is a weekly columnist  for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at peter.fenteany@uconn.edu.

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