I attended excellent schools for no other reason than my zip code was home to a high quality and well-resourced school system. A system where expectations are high for everyone: students, staff, and the community at large.
There were almost no students of color in my school, except for those who participated in a program designed to bus students in from Boston so they could attend higher quality schools in the suburbs than what was offered in their neighborhoods. The waitlist for that program—known as Metco—was and still is very long. And it’s controversial.
What does it do to a child’s psyche to understand from a very young age that the only way he/she can get the education their parents want for them and think they deserve is to take a bus out of their neighborhood in the dark of morning and spend their days with classmates—and teachers—who look nothing like them?
Later on, my years teaching in different states and in very different kinds of schools opened my eyes to the grim reality that the schools I had known growing up were not the norm for the vast majority of American students. I had learned in a world of resources, materials, and staffing levels that other schools could only dream of. My first school away from “home” was in southern California and despite having almost the exact same number of students as my alma mater, it functioned with half the staff. Yup. They had 55 people on staff for 1,000 students. My homeschool had 100 on staff, to include 7 guidance counselors and 2 full-time psychologists with PhDs. The California school had 2 guidance counselors and zero full-time psychologists.
Equity is about opportunity and meeting needs. It is an essential component of educational justice. Yet the current system of schools—which is the same system we have had for over a century—was designed to be inequitable. And, unsurprisingly, it remains that way today.
The students who have the most at home are also the ones who have the most at school, at least in the states where property taxes are the primary source of school funding. Communities that boast average housing prices of over $1 million dollars also boast the best school systems. And “best” isn’t just a lazy proxy for their test scores, although those are also pretty stellar. I’m using the word “best” to refer to challenging courses, robust counseling and mental health services, comprehensive sports programs, high quality curricular materials, and perhaps most importantly, the basic safety of students and staff.
Fast forward to my view now, as a mother. We live in a safe district that is far more economically diverse than it is racially diverse. The schools are nothing like where I grew up in terms of funding and quality but they are decent. And as I look at my three sons, I am keenly aware that everything is in place for them to succeed. And it is imperative, in my view, that all three of them understand the brutal truth that for many boys their age, here in our little state of Rhode Island and across this vast country, that is simply not the case.
My sons don’t experience hunger. Or witness violence. Or know how it feels to be called names or held to lower expectations in school because of the color of their skin or the accent of their parents. They have three college-educated grandparents. Two parents with graduate degrees. If they fall, there are strong safety nets in place to catch them. All three of them are set up for success. They started this life on third base. And so did their parents.
Their needs are vastly different—and fewer— than all the children their age who were not born on third base. Or second base. Or maybe even first base. It would be absurd for me or anyone to think that my children need, let alone deserve better services and supports than the children born without any of their advantage and privilege. But that is precisely what happens in schools across America.
And it is wrong.
One way to change it is for parents of greater means and influence to join together with parents who lack that same means and influence and declare that this is not an acceptable way to treat anyone’s children. Or parents. Or anyone. If we believe that all men are created equal and have the right to equal opportunity under the law, then we need to do much better because right now, educational opportunity for America’s children is not equal.
We have broken the promise of education. Let’s fix it, together.
Erika Sanzi spent a decade as a teacher and school dean before becoming a full-time education advocate. She also served a term as an elected school committee member. Her love for writing coupled with her willingness to take on people in power has led her to spend much of her time responding to status-quo protectors inclined to put adult interests ahead of kids. She is particularly focused on inequities in the system, persistent but surmountable achievement gaps, and what she sees as a culture of low expectations that disproportionately impacts low-income students. She is the mom of three young sons and you can often find her on the sidelines of their countless sports practices and games. She is committed to the belief that zip code isn’t destiny, that parents deserve choices when it comes to educating their children, and that too many “good” schools are falling down on the job in too many ways. Born and raised in Massachusetts, she now calls Rhode Island home with her boys, her husband, and her two dogs Griffey and Gracie. She writes about her corner of New England at Good School Hunting and is a full time consultant for Education Post.