During our recent conversation with Daniel Markovits about rampant inequality in America, we were struck by how much education either makes or breaks your future. Because more affluent Americans get access to better education, they’re more likely to go to good colleges, get good jobs, and remain wealthy.
Listen to our conversation with Daniel here:
Of course, some elites send their children to expensive and rigorous private schools, which further increases their chances of success—but it turns out public schools can also set up their pupils for failure or success to an alarming degree. Just how unequal is America’s public education system? Well…
It’s All About Your Zip Code
As you might expect, education is better when your neighborhood is better. Much, much better. Don’t just take our word for it, take the former president of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and current President of UVA James E Ryan’s word for it:
“Right now, there exists an almost ironclad link between a child’s ZIP code and her chances of success. Our education system, traditionally thought of as the chief mechanism to address the opportunity gap, instead too often reflects and entrenches existing societal inequities,”
he told the Harvard Gazette in 2016.
This is true almost everywhere in America. Take, for example, the affluent state of Connecticut. While it boasts centers of mega-wealth, like Darien (8th richest town in America), it also has its share of low-income neighborhoods. Towns like Bridgeport find themselves at the other end of the economic spectrum, consequently falling behind in education. Connecticut uses a metric called NextGen to score how well-prepared their students are for college and future jobs. Darien students averaged an excellent 93.1 on the scale, while Bridgeport students scored roughly 59.3, according to The Atlantic.
The reason low-income students score badly on these and other tests around the country is simple: public schools are funded (in large part) by property taxes. So Darien, where the median house price is $1.2M, collects a lot more in property tax per capita than Bridgeport, where the median home price is $198K. Bigger budgets mean better teachers, newer equipment and textbooks, and better facilities and services—all of which lead to better school performances.
According to data from the Education Finance Statistics Center, low-income school districts spend 15% less on education than high-income districts. In some states, like Pennsylvania, it’s as much as 33%.
In 2013, the Department of Education released a report outlining ways to equalize our school systems, suggesting tactics like directing funding towards high-poverty areas, but so far no federal action has been taken. Education equality is not likely to improve under the current administration, since Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed billions of dollars in cuts to her won department, hitting class size reduction, and reversing student loan forgiveness.
- Alessio, Devin. “The Richest Town in America Is Home to the World’s Most Famous Female Tech Billionaire.” Veranda, Veranda, 14 June 2019, www.veranda.com/luxury-lifestyle/g1563/richest-towns-in-the-us/.
- For Each and Every Child. Equity and Excellence Commission, 2013, For Each and Every Child.
- Ireland, Corydon. “The Costs of Inequality: Education’s the One Key That Rules Them All.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard Gazette, 1 Apr. 2019, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2016/02/the-costs-of-inequality-educations-the-one-key-that-rules-them-all/.
- “James E. Ryan.” University of Virginia School of Law, 6 Nov. 2019, www.law.virginia.edu/faculty/profile/jryan/402161.
- “Secretary Duncan, Urban League President Morial to Spotlight States Where Education Funding Shortchanges Low-Income, Minority Students.” Secretary Duncan, Urban League President Morial to Spotlight States Where Education Funding Shortchanges Low-Income, Minority Students | U.S. Department of Education, www.ed.gov/news/media-advisories/secretary-duncan-urban-league-president-morial-spotlight-states-where-education-funding-shortchanges-low-income-minority-students.
- Semuels, Alana. “Good School, Rich School; Bad School, Poor School.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 25 Aug. 2016, www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/08/property-taxes-and-unequal-schools/497333/.
- Smith, David. “Betsy DeVos: the Billionaire Republican Destroying Public Education.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 Dec. 2019, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/dec/27/betsy-devos-trump-republicans-education-secretary.
- “Table A1. Current Expenditures Minus Federal Revenue Other than Impact Aid per Pupil in Membership, by Poverty Quartile and State: 2011-12 .” Education Finance Statistics Center.
- Turner, Cory, et al. “Why America’s Schools Have A Money Problem.” NPR, NPR, 18 Apr. 2016, www.npr.org/2016/04/18/474256366/why-americas-schools-have-a-money-problem.
- Zillow, Inc. “Bridgeport CT Home Prices & Home Values.” Zillow, www.zillow.com/bridgeport-ct/home-values/.
- Zillow, Inc. “Darien CT Home Prices & Home Values.” Zillow, www.zillow.com/darien-ct/home-values/.