Paying the Price: Inequality in Education

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James Murphy


Education has long been regarded the great equalizer of the human condition, or as Horace Mann said, "the balance wheel of the social machinery." But for this to be true, we must first provide equality of educational opportunity. Why has equality of educational opportunity been such an elusive goal in this country? The answer largely comes down to the way we fund education. Heavy dependence on property taxes as a main source of revenue is inherently unfair. Wealthy suburbs have a much larger tax base from which to draw in proportion to its student population than a city occupied by thousands of poor people. Even if poor districts tax themselves at several times the rate of wealthy districts, they are still likely to end up with far less money per-pupil. State equalization efforts have proven largely ineffective in narrowing the gap. New or higher taxes as well as the redistribution of funds are politically unpalatable. As a result, policy makers are searching for different alternatives to deal with funding disparities. School choice is one such alternative. Proponents argue that the market mechanisms of choice and competition will engender school reform and improve student performance. Private school choice (also know as a "voucher" system) is in particular a way to extend educational opportunities to low-income families. But even if designed and implemented carefully, such a program really only has the potential of helping a small percentage of students. Where the worst funding disparities exist, "choice" is nothing but an empty promise. The bottom line is this: money matters. There are no quick and inexpensive solutions to the problems which exist in many of America's schools. We cannot escape the fact that it's going to be expensive. Conservative estimates for equalization hover around an additional $100 billion a year. What people need to understand, however, is that we either pay now or we pay more later.

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