This post is occasioned by the article here.  The argument here is that the question of educational equity should really be a matter of national concern.  This was buttressed by this Unicef report (thank you WDP) which points out the low rank of the United States compared to other developed countries in terms of health, education and opportunity equity for its children. The questioned I raised in this conversation was how to “frame” the argument for equity in terms that would gain some traction among the American people and their politicians.  One friend argued:

“I think framing questions of equity as a threat to the nation will motivate corporations and some politicians, but not most individuals and families. “A war on” a concept — poverty, drugs, terror, illiteracy, inequality — won’t persuade Americans the way it once might have. Cynicism and NIMBY-ism prevent it.”
The UNICEF reports measures equity in terms of money spent per child or in other words by the finacial inputs into the system. The first national response to the problem lately has been the No Child Left Behind initiative which will be in some ways just compounded by Obama’s educational initiatives.  These programs have answered the question “What is equity?” by saying that it is in output measured by the scores on standardized assessment tests. Moreover as my friend argued the problem is greater than than just education in schools. There are other inputs other than money.  These include the health of students, home involvement in schools and the entire educational process, diet, extra curricular activities, perceived and actual  prospects with education, peers, and the availability of non-school resources to name just a few.
I am most familiar with Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children Zone and its Promise Academy, which is featured in the documentary “Waiting for Superman.” I once asked one of Canada’s lieutenants when did he think they should start preparing students for college and he replied “before birth.” They consequently had a prenatal educational program for pregnant women. As he explained to me the problem was that “if it takes a village to raise a child”, they started without a village.  The Harlem Children’s Zone consequently ran a wide variety of community programs in addition to the educational program at its charter school Promise Academy.
I will talk about education itself in a later post but for now let’s look at the question of equity. Measuring equity either by financial inputs or standardized test outputs seems like using poor, simplistic yardsticks that don’t really tell us much about the situation. The only advantage they have is that they are easily measured and easily latched onto by politicians and others who know little about education. If we really want to talk about equity we need to talk about the things that should make up a good education and how we can moved toward seeing that those things are equitably distributed.
Admittedly we in the United States are really bad at equity discussions.  Income and wealth are very inequitably distributed in the United States.  To even mention this as a problem is to face charges of “socialism” or even “communism” and ironically it is the middle class from lower middle to upper middle who most believe this charge (often made by the upper classes and powerful.) They fear losing the opportunity to move up the economic ladder even if the facts tell us that people rarely do.  The Horatio Alger myth and the life stories of a minority keep this hope alive and forms the glue that holds our society together despite such inequities.
This fear that an individual and his or her family  might lose something affects educational equity as well. Those in affluent neighborhoods can support better education with contributions of time or superior tax base or private funding.  Those in poorer neighborhoods cannot make these contributions. A common “pot” to fund education would mean that those at the top of the income scale might lose funding for their schools in order for those at the bottom to gain.
This leads us back to the initial question about how do we re-frame the question of educational equity.  We need to reframe it in a way that no one equates equity with loss. My friend quoted above recommends reframing it in terms of community.  Let him have the last word in this post:
If enough people believe inequity will destroy what they care about–a country, a way of life, a hope for community–they can act to create these links and allow themselves and others to reorient their drive to take care of family and friends through them, and harness that to take care of the small community and the larger one. Solidarity needs a basis in human ties that have to be cultivated and maintained.

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