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Why public education in America is like running a rigged Olympic race

Dec. 14, 2017
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Imagine you’re a track star who has made it all the way to the Olympic semifinals. You crouch into starting position and wait—rather impatiently—for the race to start, with one goal in mind: finishing in first place to secure the best lane for the Olympic finals.

You know that, while the eight track lanes have different starting positions that are intended to ensure that each runner runs the same distance, all runners insist it is far harder to win a race from Lane Eight than it is to win from Lane One. Just ask Wayde Van Niekerk.   

You try your hardest, but you come in last place, and are assigned Lane Eight. 

You feel set up for failure.

This feeling is not that different from what graduates of many of our country’s public schools feel. For them, though, the elusive Olympic gold medal is a degree from a prestigious Ivy League university. The education that students receive varies enormously from public school to public school, as public schools are funded by local property taxes. Unlike their wealthy counterparts, poor towns cannot afford to tax their residents at high rates, and the amount of money available to fund schools in poor towns is greatly limited.

According to 2017’s States with the Best & Worst School Systems, where best and worst are determined by performance, funding, safety, class size and instructor credentials, Massachusetts is the state with the best public schools, while Louisiana is the state with the worst. 

In track and field terms, a graduate of a public school from a wealthy area of Massachusetts would be assigned Lane One, while a graduate of a public school from a poor area of Louisiana would be assigned Lane Eight. In fact, there is such a huge disparity in the education of students who attend public schools in affluent areas and those who attend public schools in poor areas that it’s more accurate to say that a public school student from a poor area is running a 400-meter hurdle race from Lane Eight, while the wealthy student is running a mere 50-meter dash—not a hurdle in sight—from Lane One. 

Quite literally, these hurdles are the things that prevent poor students—who are almost always people of color—from receiving a quality education. The hurdles can range from old, outdated textbooks, to broken desks, to unhealthy (maybe even inedible) cafeteria food, to a subpar security system, to antiquated technology… the list goes on. 

Much as being assigned Lane Eight for the Olympic finals makes it significantly harder to win Olympic gold, having a low-quality public education in elementary, middle, and especially high school, results in huge disadvantages for students applying for higher education. 

Our system of public education is broken.

People should not be forced to pay thousands of dollars a year for private schools, just to obtain the same quality education that students in public schools in richer areas receive for free. Nor should people feel forced to attend charter schools, which literally take money away from public schools. 

The right to education is supposedly guaranteed to every citizen of the United States. Yet the quality of that education appears to be an afterthought, at best. And that must change, immediately. 

The ways to do this are varied. For example, we could consider instituting minimum standards so that no one is taught that slaves enjoyed being tortured during the Civil War, as is referenced in some textbooks in Texas. Or perhaps we should campaign to re-design the funding for public schools so that it’s not based solely on property taxes and thus won’t exacerbate the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap. (Many states, such as New Jersey, have already instituted this kind of change.) Or maybe we can make sure that all school systems have full-day kindergarten and free preschools so that children gain knowledge before entering first grade—something else at work in New Jersey. Or else we could consider paying teachers more to attract the very best to work in poor schools, to ensure that no student ever has to confront a teacher who doesn’t care. Or any combination of these ideas.

No, life is not fair, but there are ways to make it more fair. We just have to try them.