Educational Disparity Caps Student Potential

in Articles/National by

At an Andover town meeting, a request to develop a new apartment building on Dascomb Road in Andover was withdrawn because of citizen concerns. The development project would require affordable housing, thus provoking questions over the effect of the project on school enrollment. People’s hesitance may have been rooted in the fact that there was limited planning for the project, but one can’t help but wonder whether the issues of affordable housing and school enrollment are negatively linked in people’s minds. It seems a matter of fact that in places where rent is lower, and the minority population is greater that public education is worse than in wealthy suburban areas, such as Andover.1 Sources differ as to Andover Public Schools exact ranking relative to other Massachusetts schools, but consistently agree that it is one of the best schools in the state, according to test scores, graduation rate, and college-readiness of students.2 Massachusetts as a whole, on average, spends roughly $13,000 per student, and Andover, $15,000. Both are significantly higher than the national average of $11,000.3 These statistics may be comforting to you reading this, but they exist within a much bigger picture, with inequality persisting from state to state, and even from town to town. Consistently, schools in towns with higher property values and greater economic prosperity have better funding, making for a better, more individualized learning experience for each student, and affording increased access to better resources and facilities. The question of how an apartment complex, which would include affordable housing, would affect school enrollment is an interesting one. Surely the addition of a few hundred families would increase school enrollment, but not astronomically. And surely, the fact that these families are of lesser income would not cause Andover’s funding to suddenly plummet.

Affluency cannot be equated with intelligence, just as poverty cannot be equated with ignorance. However, there seems to be an association in many people’s minds between one’s wealth and their intelligence, largely driven by the fact that wealthier people have access to better education than poorer people.  A significant factor that accounts for education inequality is property taxes. In many states, including Massachusetts, local property taxes provide primary funding for schools. Chapter 70 is Massachusetts’ education aid program, which determines through a formula the amount of state government aid provided to each school district, as well as establishing a foundation budget for each one. It is intended to provide greater government aid to districts of lower wealth, hoping to achieve relative equality in funding for education. However, districts are not prohibited from bolstering their funding through increased local contribution. For example, Lynn is required to contribute $2,763 per student from local property taxes and receives $8,493 in state aid,. Newton, on the other hand, is required to contribute $8,034 per student from local property taxes and receives only $1,207 in aid. This adds up to a greater foundation budget in Lynn. However Newton spends an additional  $5,195 per student, thereby spending more than in Lynn.4 Newton is a wealthier town, whose property is valued higher, thus raking in more in property taxes which it can route into public schools. One may think that is a good thing, as it improves the school system in a town like Newton, which is of course a positive. However, less affluent towns do not have the opportunity to bolster their education budget through property taxes, making it impossible for their schools to be as well off. While seemingly a fair system, Chapter 70 is no less susceptible to inequitable wealth and property values as other states’ education programs. However, its shortcomings pale in comparison to those of other states, as some do absolutely nothing to try to equalize the divide in education funding, leaving the poor, meagerly funded school districts to fend for themselves.

Lawrence is a city in which graduation rates, test scores, and subject proficiency are consistently well below average, and, unsurprisingly, poverty is abundant. Due to its failing performance, Lawrence’s school district has been seized by the state of Massachusetts for overhaul and reform. This type of overhaul aims at improving math and reading proficiency, as well as scores on standardized tests such as MCAS which one must pass to graduate. Lawrence has a score of 45% proficiency in both math and English and an average SAT of 940, which fall significantly below both state and national averages.5 Standardized tests are a competitive method of comparing students by quantifying their knowledge, and in the case of failing school districts such as this, abysmal scores are often used a justification for government takeover. However, it seems obvious that poor school districts, who cannot afford prep books for these tests, or even adequate school lunches, perform poorly on standardized testing. Jeffrey Riley, Lawrence’s superintendent, or receiver, has a great deal of power over the Lawrence school district. Riley “added performance-based teacher compensation, a longer school day and year, robust teacher and principal evaluation protocols, and school leaders’ capacity to fire underperforming teachers without regard for seniority.”6 Students and teachers have been disenfranchised by this plan, as their school district has been completely overhauled without them having a voice or a vote. Lawrence Public Schools have seen improvement under receivership. Graduation rates and subject proficiency have increased. However, the measures taken seem to ignore the greater problems permeating Lawrence and similar school districts. The reality is that a school district in which most students live in poverty cannot thrive. Nearly 90% of Lawrence students qualify for free school lunch, and it would be remiss to not mention that 91% of Lawrence students are Hispanic.7 Receivership in Lawrence ignores the fact that poverty is the true issue which prevents students from succeeding, and that cities in which much of the population is Hispanic or African-American, poverty is far more likely.

It seems that even when the growing tide of gentrification, which  raises property values and improves infrastructure, reaches poorly funded areas, schools experience little benefit. Gentrification is a widely debated topic. Some say it benefits residents of poorer areas, while others believe it only drives them out because they can no longer afford the rent in their own neighborhood. While this process does allow previously poor neighborhoods to see improvements in infrastructure, schools in these neighborhoods see no improvement. In fact, “[b]ecause newcomers tend to send their kids outside of the local system, often to private or charter schools, gentrification tends to have a neutral or even negative effect on neighborhood schools, at least in the short term.”8 Gentrification, while seeming to bring improvement to communities and the standard of living for their residents, actually only brings new coffeehouses, community gardens, and increased  property values for the wealthy people hoping to live in an “up and coming” neighborhood, ignoring community fixtures such as public schools, whose improvement could reap huge benefits in the long run. An interesting phenomenon has surfaced in these areas, as schools hoping to attract pupils and funding market themselves as magnet schools and create programs for gifted students. People who can afford to send their children to the best schools ensure them the best education, which explains why charter schools and these magnet schools are more likely choices among gentrifiers. However, if their children were sent to the schools which need increased funding, better resources, and more attention, they could likely achieve the same type of improvement which they bring to the neighborhood around them.

The sad truth is that amidst this inequality of education funding, the students suffer. Those in low-income areas do not have access to updated textbooks, state-of-the-art computer labs, decent classrooms, or even adequate school lunches. An article from The Atlantic details inequality of education, namely in Connecticut, a state with a large portion of very wealthy households. Students in the poorer districts of Connecticut score significantly lower on tests, demonstrate lower subject proficiency, graduate at a lower rate, and there’s more “chronic absenteeism.”9 Because these students have to learn in an environment where their personal needs are neither valued nor met, they have less of an incentive to learn, and less of an opportunity to be adequately taught. On the other hand, in Andover, test scores are consistently above average, we hold a graduation rate of 97%, and demonstrate well above average subject proficiency, with over 99% proficiency in English.10  Andover has recent editions of textbooks, offers numerous AP courses, and laptop carts and computer labs are accessible to every student. It’s no wonder that here, test scores are better and graduation rates higher.

Horace Mann said, “[e]ducation then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” This statement eloquently expresses the beauty of education, its value, and its inherent role in promoting equality and democracy. Through education, one can discover their passion, form their beliefs, and eliminate a little bit of the ignorance that exists in today’s world. However, extenuating factors prevent public education from reaching its full potential as society’s great equalizer. Without high property values and solid infrastructure, schools don’t get adequate funding, and in turn students don’t get a valuable education. According to San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the Constitution does not ensure equal access to education as a fundamental right. Thus, inequality persists at an alarming level. Students are forced to learn about the principles of democracy and equality which define our country, but for many of them, a denial of those things prevents them from reaching their full potential.

 

 

  1. “Why America’s Schools Have a Money Problem,” National Public Radio, April 18, 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/04/18/474256366/why-americas-schools-have-a-money-problem
  2.  “Andover High in Andover, Ma | US News Best High Schools,” U. S. News, https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/massachusetts/districts/andover/andover-high-9263.
  3.  “Why America’s Schools Have a Money Problem,” National Public Radio, April 18, 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/04/18/474256366/why-americas-schools-have-a-money-problem.
  4.  “How School Funding Works in Massachusetts,” January 16, 2015, WBUR, http://learninglab.legacy.wbur.org/topics/school-funding/.
  5.  “Lawrence Public Schools,” Niche, https://www.niche.com/k12/d/lawrence-public-schools-ma/academics/.
  6.  Carey Borkoski, “Receivership in Lawrence, MA: Problems, Possibilities, and Progress,” Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, http://edpolicy.education.jhu.edu/?p=52.
  7.  “Key Facts: Lawrence Public Schools,” http://www.lawrence.k12.ma.us/about-lps/key-facts.
  8.  Bloom, Ester, “When Neighborhoods Gentrify, Why Aren’t Their Public Schools Improving?” The Atlantic, October 7, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/gentrification-schools/408568/.
  9.  Semuels, Alana, “Good School, Rich School; Bad School, Poor School,” The Atlantic, August 25, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/08/property-taxes-and-unequal-schools/497333/.
  10.  “Andover High in Andover, Ma | US News Best High Schools,” U. S. News, https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/massachusetts/districts/andover/andover-high-9263