An Unacceptable Irony: Disparities Threaten U.S. Public Education System

By National School Boards Association

Like the tiles in a mosaic, each interesting on its own but collectively presenting a separate image, the current state of public education in America generally does not appear as a complete picture when reading individual news stories or research studies. The challenges facing public schools are many, but together they conspire to threaten this most vital institution if left unaddressed.

At the outset, we need to acknowledge that America is changing – both in terms of its racial and ethnic composition, as well as in its income disparities. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that the percentage of schools in which students mostly are Hispanic and black, as well as from low income families, has risen significantly, and frequently is accompanied by fewer resources and educational opportunities.

Poverty is having a particularly profound impact on children. More than 50 percent of students in U.S. public schools today are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, according to the Southern Education Foundation. Although this should be deeply troubling, the prevalence of childhood poverty is hardly discussed by elected officials, and it has been virtually ignored in this year’s political debate.

That these conditions exist at all, let alone continue to grow in scope and impact, is a glaring paradox in the wealthiest nation on the planet. The demographic trend lines are unmistakable, and they should constitute a clarion call for investment in education and the development of young people. At a time when so many children are encountering exceptional headwinds in their lives, society should strengthen efforts to ensure they are afforded every opportunity to be successful. Sadly, though, that is not happening in far too many places. Budget cuts and legislation promoting vouchers and other programs that divert essential funding from public schools, coupled with a general lack of urgency about investing in education, are undermining those vital opportunities.

Together, these developments represent a retreat from our country’s historic commitment to public education as a critical tool of assimilation. Instead of ensuring that people from a variety of ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds understand each other, and learn together – the hallmark of the American public education system – the capacity of schools to perform that function is being quietly, inexorably eroded.

Despite all this, there is much to celebrate. Even with a highly diverse pupil population, limited resources, and higher academic standards, more students now are graduating from high school than at any time in history. Said another way: The challenges never have been greater; the results never have been better. Still, there are limits to the magic that school boards, administrators, and teachers can perform without adequate public support. Heroic efforts are noble but should not be the norm.

Public education is a birthright; however, it is not self-perpetuating. To survive, let alone thrive, public schools require an investment of money and commitment. This is the time to insist on both from our political leaders.

By Thomas J. Gentzel, the executive director of the National School Boards Association. Follow Gentzel on Twitter @Tom_NSBA.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

Photo By Dan Buck via Flickr Creative Commons.