In France, it matters not at all where a child lives—big city, rural village, in a cottage or a mansion: every child is taught the same basic curriculum in safe, clean, well-funded public schools. Each child is deemed worthy of the same amount of money for his or her education as every other child.
In America, it matters a great deal where a child lives. With state and local funding determining everything from teacher pay to the types of books (if any) students have to study, the rule of thumb is this: the rich are well educated and the poor are not. The rich are safe at school and the poor are not. The rich go to school in clean, well-lighted buildings with large classrooms and laboratories and low student-teacher ratios. Poor children may have to endure buildings contaminated with mold and mildew, outdated textbooks (if any), and crowded classrooms with discouraged, inexperienced, and underpaid teachers.
In 1991, Jonathan Kozol wrote a book that shamed the nation. Savage Inequalities documented the appalling inequalities across the country between educational opportunities for the rich and the poor—a distinction that all too often breaks down along racial lines. Kozol has been writing ever since, describing again and again the shameful apartheid that exists in America and documenting how, rather than getting better, the situation has become progressively worse.
Kozol is one of the most respected educational theorists since John Dewey. He’s founded model schools that show beyond doubt the efficacy of his ideas. Yet his tireless crusade in behalf of America’s school children has accomplished very little except to raise the consciousness of those who have read his books. The reason: the way schools are funded.
In The Shame of the Nation (2005), Kozol documents the breakdown of the “old, but seldom honored national ideal of universal public education that affords all children equal opportunity within the borders of a democratic entity.” Therein lies the problem. In America, the “democratic entities” that determine the level of opportunity for children are the states and local districts.
Data from 2005 shows that the average amount of money spent per student in this country was about $8700. However, that figure is pretty much meaningless; it represents that proverbial “average weight” of a mouse and an elephant. A state-by-state comparison shows a difference of almost $9000 per year between the state that has the highest per-student expenditures (New York at $14,119) and the lowest (Utah at $5,257). These figures don’t begin to suggest the magnitude of the problem, however: within each state, depending on the local tax base, expenditures per student can vary dramatically. This suggests what Jonathan Kozol has spent his career documenting in detail: students in America’s richest districts live on an entirely different planet from those in the poorest districts.
Neither states nor local communities can fix this problem. It has to be addressed on the national level.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is a heavy-handed, unfunded mandate that forces every district in the country to meet arbitrary, often meaningless standards and to spend millions of dollars on expensive and time consuming “high-stakes” tests. However, its passage was at least an acknowledgment by the federal government that it bears some responsibility for equalizing educational opportunities in America. Professional educators have made the best of a bad situation and strive to meet the requirements of the bill, while improvements that would really make a difference—most significantly, smaller class sizes—continue to be put off indefinitely.
We can't fix inequalities in education by telling states and local districts to fix them. If they could, they would. Funding for education has to come from a pot big enough to ensure that there will be enough to go around. This would not be a matter of increasing overall costs for education; rather, it would be a matter of eliminating the colossal waste involved in having fifty different states with fifty different sets of standards, fifty different departments of education, and fifty different "high-stakes tests."
A responsible, functional central government could solve many of this nation's problems and eliminate extraordinary, unimaginable waste--if only we had the wisdom to elect good, responsible leaders (as we did in 2008) and support them as they go about their work.