In last weeks’ part 1 of this series on equity, equality, and access to quality education, I defined access to quality education as “the ways in which educational institutions and policies ensure—or at least strive to ensure—that students have equal and equitable opportunities to take full advantage of their education. Increasing access generally requires schools to provide additional services or remove any actual or potential barriers that might prevent some students from equitable participation in certain courses or academic programs.” Access then encompasses many aspects of education, from funding, to resources, to programs and services that help ensure that all students are getting an equitable education (what they need to support learning).
Obviously, all school districts and schools strive to provide access to needed services and supports for their students. There are federal laws in place designed to ensure that all students are getting access to equitable education and getting supports they need. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) is a law that all public schools must adhere to, which ensures that students with disabilities (including learning disabilities) have access to the least restrictive educational setting, have rights to ensure they get the services they need to support their learning, and parents can have a say in the educational decisions made regarding their students. An example of this from my own teaching is having an interpreter in my math classes that signed for the deaf students in my classes, or a student with an IEP (individual education plan) who needed copies of my notes because they had a learning disability that interfered with their ability to take their own notes. There is also Title I Laws and Funding, specifically designed to address low-income and disadvantaged students and ensure that schools that serve these students are getting the funds they need to support achievement, through things like extra academic supports for reading and writing, pre-school and after-school programs, with the goal to improve achievement on state standardized testing. I won’t go into all the details (link provided gives more information), but the idea here is to provide additional academic supports to low-income& disadvantaged students who are struggling academically. There are no federal laws that pertain to gifted students needs, though there are individual states and local schools that provide resources and supports for gifted education, but it varies by state.
As you might surmise, there is definitely an attempt to provide access to equitable education. But what’s the reality?
From my own experiences, access is NOT equitable. I would wager in most school districts, there is a huge disparity between what resources are available and the quality of education received at various schools within the same district and between districts within the same state. I have worked in many urban school districts where one middle school has low-achieving students at computers every day in math class, working on computer programs designed to support their mathematical skill development, and the other middle school down the street barely has enough rulers for the 42 students in the class, with a teacher who just has one computer and projector and a room full of ELL students speaking 5 different languages. Same school district. Not equitable access to resources. Not equitable learning environments or supports.
This is NOT an isolated situation, as I am sure many of you have experienced similar situations personally, whether as an educator or as a parent. Why is there such disparity when there are laws designed to ensure access to equitable resources and education opportunities?
The obvious answer is funding, which is a huge factor in access discrepancies. While everyone thinks funding for schools comes from federal money, federal funding makes up only 8% of public schools funding, so those TitleI funds and IDEA funds only accounting for a very small portion of education funding overall. 92% of funding for public schools comes from the states themselves, from taxes, lottery receipts and other sources, and a large portion from local property taxes. This means two school districts next to each other, one with a lower-economic base and less property tax, and one with a higher-economic base and more property tax, are going to have vastly different educational funding and resources. High-poverty schools spend less per student, and often have a more difficult time keeping quality teachers because of the disparity in available resources and services. It’s a vicious cycle. Many of the problems come from the way states/school districts apportion school funding, using different funding formulas that from the outset are ‘unfair and unequal’:
In a separate report, “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card,” the Education Law Center answered its own question with a resounding “No.” Among the findings:
- Fourteen states, including Texas, Pennsylvania and Illinois, have “regressive” school funding, defined as providing less money to schools with higher concentrations of students from low-income families.
- In 19 states—including California, Florida, Colorado and Washington—the funding systems are defined as “flat,” meaning they “fail to provide any appreciable increase in funding to address the needs of students in high poverty districts.”
- Only four states have school-funding systems that earned “fair” ratings: Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Delaware. But “these states have a sufficient overall level of funding and provide significantly higher amounts of funding to high poverty school districts,” according to the report. (from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/06/how-funding-inequalities-push-poor-students-further-behind/395348/)
If we go back to what equitable education means – students should be getting the resources, supports and instruction that supports their individual needs. With the type of funding described above, this is clearly not what is happening (nice graphic here by state showing the difference by state in funding for poor school districts vs. wealthy school districts). Poverty and all that it entails, seems to be a huge factor in the access to equitable quality education. It impacts parental support (hard to be there to help with homework or pay for tutors if you are working two jobs to make ends meet), access to educators and schools support personnel such as school counselors and nurses, access to technology, education supplies (paper, manipulatives, textbooks, calculators, etc.), school safety, and all the myriad of other components that make up quality education.
When thinking about education and how to provide access to the resources every student needs, we need to restructure how states and school districts distribute school funding and resources. Districts need to do a true evaluation of what each school in their district has in terms of education resources (materials, technology, personnel), and most importantly, what they need to support those students in those specific schools. If the two schools down the street from each other in the same school district have math classes in one school of 20, with students at computers, and the other school with math classes of 42 and no computers and not even enough seats or rulers for students, there is clearly a problem. The first step is to really do an inventory of what schools have, what class rooms and sizes look like, what personnel resources are and really identify the glaring discrepancies. You can’t fix something if you don’t even know where it’s broken – once we see the vast difference in access within school districts, then we can take that next step of thinking about ways to reapportion some of those resources in a more equitable way.