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COMMENTARY: Confronting educational inequity
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COMMENTARY: Confronting educational inequity

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Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed a statewide symposium on educational inequity. This is a very timely idea, although educational inequity is not just a Virginia problem.

The pandemic has made it a larger national crisis than ever because the learning disruptions caused by COVID-19 have most negatively impacted economically disadvantaged students.

The strongest indicator of educational inequity across our country is the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers. The two major policy remedies to close this gap over the past 20 years have been expanded high-stakes standardized testing and charter schools.

Neither has been particularly successful. It’s hard to understand how added testing would increase achievement. Lambs are not nourished by simply weighing them more often. Also, research on charter schools has not shown them to produce widespread, sustained academic gains for low-income students.

So what does legitimate educational equity look like, especially related to the achievement gap? My experience in public education has convinced me that genuine equity is tied to supplemental educational services for economically disadvantaged students from preschool through high school.

These services would provide the kinds of educational enhancement that more well-off families and communities already provide for their children.

The most important of such supplemental programs is quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. These programs would emphasize prereading and phonics skills, numeracy development, English instruction for immigrant children, nutrition and health, and the arts.

These programs would also focus on the social skills needed for school along with expanded learning experiences like field trips. Additionally, these programs would help families learn how to nurture their children’s success in school, a support that should continue through high school.

While preschool programs are essential, they aren’t enough by themselves. Research on preschool programs for low-income children has shown that the academic gains made by kindergarten mostly are lost in the primary grades without continued additional support.

In elementary school, this support would include after-school and summer programs that provide academic skills development, tutoring, and arts and enrichment activities.

In middle school, these programs would be similar to elementary school, with added emphasis on career exploration. In high school, “soft” skills development, shadowing and internship experiences, SAT/ACT preparation, and career and college counseling would be included with regular academics.

The goal of these programs would be to provide low-income students with the kinds of extended opportunities already available to students living under more stable economic circumstances.

So how would we pay for these programs? There would certainly be additional cost. Some of the funding could come from more targeted use of federal funds like Title I. (I never have been convinced that federal education money is consistently spent as productively as it could be.)

Repurposing of state dollars already allocated for at-risk students could be another funding strategy. Partnerships with business and nonprofits also might address some costs. Additional resources and some creative use of existing resources are needed here.

As educational inequity is debated, there surely will be advocacy for school choice through some form of public funding for private school tuition. I’ve had many conversations with proponents of school choice.

When I suggest that private schools benefiting from public funds be required to have open or lottery-based enrollment, provide free transportation, and be subject to the same due process and transparent accountability mandates as public schools, I hear a lot of rationalizing about “fit” and “autonomy.”

It seems like choice proponents want public funding without the challenges and responsibilities shouldered by public schools. School choice is not a viable solution to educational inequity until there is much more open access to private schools for economically disadvantaged students.

Providing the programs described here should be considered an investment to avoid higher societal costs later. Proactive, sustained focus on education early along is far less costly than courts, prisons and reactive programs later. To illustrate, our nation spends an average of more than $33,000 per prison inmate a year.

That said, these programs would immediately help to reduce truancy, school suspensions, dropouts, youth crime, gang involvement, drug use and teen pregnancy. I have seen time and again that given a real choice, young people will usually gravitate to positive endeavors.

These supplemental services would serve as a long-term foundation for true educational equity. It’s well past time to take bold action to address the glaring inequities in educational opportunities we know to exist. When the pandemic ends, these inequities and the achievement gap only will be worse.

Frank Morgan is a retired educator who worked for 43 years in public school systems in Virginia and South Carolina, including five years as superintendent in Goochland County. He started his career in Henrico County and also worked in Colonial Heights and Albemarle County.

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