American Public Education is Not the Great Equalizer. But It Should Be.

I often hear American public education described as the great equalizer. It is not, but it should be. Truthfully, American public education has never been anything close to an equalizer of opportunities for American students. Instead, in many places and cases, now and throughout American history, American public education has served to reinforce and sometimes even exacerbate inequity in American society.

Sure we can point to examples of Americans who came from humble beginnings where public schools were the institution that provided the staircase to a better life for them and their children. Many of us can point to African Americans, who even during the time of legalized segregation and discrimination, used their public education to ascend to places educationally and professionally that few would have ever dreamed possible. But to be clear, those cases are the exception to the rule, not the rule. These stories of triumph tend to be much more outliers than the norm. Unfortunately, the rule and norm of American public education has been that those who are more affluent and have more social and political capital are able to secure higher quality, better resourced public schooling for their children than their less affluent, less well-connected counterparts. That’s the truth about American public education. It was true for me as a child who grew up in a working class neighborhood, with neighborhood public schools that were not well-equipped to prepare me for the educational and professional opportunities that I have been blessed to have. It is also true for my daughter, who grows up in an upper middle class neighborhood with neighborhood public schools that are resourced and equipped to prepare her for any career she is willing to put her head, hands, and heart into.

So no, American public education is not the great equalizer. There is absolutely nothing equal or equitable about it. But if America is to truly become what we have the potential to be, to truly live out the tenets and high ideals that many of us hold so dear about our country, American public education has to become more equitable than it has ever been before. And the institution of public schooling cannot and will not get there with tinkering, or a change here and a change there. The inequities of our system are great, and include the inequitable distribution of funding, human resources, as well as racist and classist policies that ensure poor communities remain poor, less-educated, and dependent on government and charity. Only large scale reform has any hope of making American public education the great equalizer America needs it to become.

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