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K-12 Education

The American Education System Must Be Equal Before It Can Be the Best

I have spent my life and career thinking about the inequality of social structures that prevent most of the world’s population from ever escaping poverty. My work in the study of poverty alleviation took me to Ethiopia, Tanzania, China, and Thailand. But Americans need not go far to see similar inequities in their own communities.

The most apparent indicator of inequality in the United States, and specifically in urban areas like Detroit, is the disparity in public education funding. The best public schools that receive the most funding are found in wealthy cities with high property values. By contrast, the public schools found in the poorest school districts receive the least amount of funding on average.

Given that public education provides one of the few pathways to the middle class for children from poor and working-class families, the funding of public schools through property taxes is one of the last economic – and to a large extent, racial – inequities in the United States. The inequality of our school system has led to detrimental consequences, with the United States ranked near the bottom among developed nations in math and science performance. The only way our education system can become the best is to cease the passing of class privilege via property taxes to pay for quality education and to direct more state funding to public schools with the greatest need.

A first-generation college graduate raised by a single immigrant mother in Detroit, I essentially won the education lottery when I received a Skillman Foundation Scholarship to attend an elite private suburban high school. I am grateful to The Skillman Foundation for giving me the opportunity to receive one of – if not the best – college preparatory education in the state of Michigan. My experience as a Skillman Scholar built character, broadened my perspective, and led to the goal of entering a higher social class someday. It also made me realize that I was unprepared to compete with many of my high school peers after spending my formative childhood years at underfunded schools in the inner city.

Christal Phillips as a student at University Liggett School

I was lucky, but we shouldn’t leave our children’s educational opportunities to chance. I sometimes wonder where I would be today if I had not received a Skillman Foundation scholarship. If I would have the required skills to even be able to write this blog post. Possibly not. The idea that the brightest and best students in Detroit should have to be education refugees in order to realize their full potential is indicative of how inequality starts from early education. Every child is entitled to high-quality neighborhood public schools.

Our society is obsessed with rankings. There is a ranking for the best schools, the best hospitals, the best neighborhoods, and the best companies to work for. The flipside to this is that there has to be a worst on the list. Many people have no choice but to settle for the worst schools, the worst medical care, the worst jobs, and the worst neighborhoods. Rather than always striving to be the best, imagine how much our schools would improve across the board if we first strived for equity, even if it required additional funding to poor school districts to level the playing field. To give an example, the Finnish education system, often considered the best in the world, did not originally try to be the best. Its goal was to create a school system based on equity, which, in the process, became the best.

Philosopher John Rawls said, “a just society is a society that if you knew everything about it, you’d be willing to enter it in a random place.” We live in an unjust society because no one would be willing to allow his or her child to be randomly placed into any school district in America. In an equal society, children would not need to leave their community to receive an excellent education. Parents would not have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to guarantee that their children receive an education that prepares them to succeed in college and in life.

The continued deregulation and defunding of public schools, and the attack on state-funded initiatives to help our most disadvantaged students living in poverty or in need of special education are regressive and uphold the barriers to economic and racial equality. What we need is simple, but it requires long-term investment and the strong belief that quality public education is the key to spreading social mobility and that all our citizens deserve access to it regardless of their race, disability, or socio-economic class.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of her employer.

Comments (5)

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  • Foster Wilson

    This was very insightful and true. The million dollar question is how can it be implemented.

  • Kristin

    That was well said, Christal. I hope that your thoughts inspire our leaders to evaluate the way we divide public school funding. We need to have our eye on equity when planning funding.

  • Dr. Varima Bokare

    Totally mind opening and awesome blogpost!

  • Dr. Varima Bokare

    Totally mind opening blog post

  • Charles Lewis

    Underfunded and low performing public schools in this nation’s urban areas simply mirror the disparities that permeate the greater society. These inequities are built into a system that is basically designed to open the “door of opportunity” only for those persons who meet certain racial, economic, and social requirements.

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