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A Race to Admission: Equality and Education Equality is an ideological foundation of the United States’ Declaration of Independence, as evidenced by the decree that “all men are created equal.” Yet issues of equality persist, even 240 years subsequent to this statement, despite the efforts to progress towards a more equitable nation. Equality is absent particularly in the realm of public education, a right granted to the people as a gift from the government intended to be returned in the form of enlightened voting.
Because public education funding is derived from taxes, there is a correlation between quality of education and demographics of the neighborhood of the school, yet it is more closely related to race than to socioeconomic status and therefore should be targeted through that ethnic avenue in order to spark change.
Focusing on education when talking about equality is vital. Public education is meant to provide students with the foundational skills and practical knowledge to succeed in their futures, making it an obligation of the United States government.
In that sense, it should function as a way to create equal starting places. If everyone were given the same resources and quality of education, all children would have equal opportunity towards a prosperous future. Yet, in reality, a lot of influence over the student’s future comes from their inherent identities and the “[g]reat inequality of wealth and income…undermin[ing] equality of opportunity…” (Scanlon 18), hindering the ability to provide one standardized starting line. Education does not strive to provide everyone with equal outcomes as stratification of success is inevitable, but ensuring educational equality from the very start allows to bridge the gap in order for the economic difference to be based upon personal characteristics of motivation and intelligence rather than hereditary factors like race and wealth.
This debate between the two factors on education equality is extremely relevant to the Chicago Public School’s “Selective Enrollment” program, enacted to provide educational opportunities in a system outside of the neighborhood schools that is otherwise unequal. The handful of schools falling under this program requires students to take an entrance exam to then be matched, if at all, to a high school, attracting high achieving students from across the city.
Each school upholds a certain quota of students from various backgrounds, yet the method of doing so has changed over the years. The Chicago Public School’s Desegregation Consent Decree of 1980 required schools to admit a certain number of students from each racial group to reach a certain level of diversity, meant to desegregate schools (Novack). In 2009, Chicago Public schools shifted the focus of the quota to attain diversity by accepting students based upon the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood they lived in. This is supposed to make it harder for students of a higher socioeconomic status to achieve admittance, as their test scores will be higher coming from private, parochial, or high-achieving public schools as compared to the lower-income companions who will be required a lower score to get into these schools. Chicago Public School officials thought this would promote equality as Chicago, a hyper-segregated city, shows a deep intersectionality between race and socioeconomics, yet this shift in policy resulted in the diversity actually decreasing.
The impact of shifting focus from race to socioeconomic status is clear within the demographics of the Selective Enrollment program. After the Chicago Public Schools Desegregation Consent Decree of 1980 was lifted, diversity plummeted. For example, Walter Payton College Preparatory School, often nearing the hardest of the Selective Enrollment schools to gain entrance into, had 41 percent of their incoming freshmen class of Caucasian descent in 2010, as compared to 29 percent the previous year under the Decree (Novack). While generally frowned upon, the racial quotas existing prior to 2009 ensured heterogeneity and access to quality education to students of color who would otherwise lack the opportunities to these resources had they stayed in their neighborhood school districts which are underfunded, if existent at all.
As seen in the data point expressed by Novack above, using socioeconomics as a means to accept students showed a high advantage to the already privileged students. Although rare, there were incidences of wealthy citizens using their socioeconomic stability to purchase a place of residence in a low income neighborhood to use as their address when applying to these schools where they were in the pool with other students entering into the system from lower performing middle schools, easing the process of acceptance. This shows the harm of this method of entrance; when framed through socioeconomic means, the more advantaged can use that supremacy to their benefit, allowing for the less advantaged to be even worse off than prior to 2009 when racial identities could not be forged, despite the system being intended to benefit the minority population in the first place.
While rare, this instance shows how this new system can be abused to continue to hold wealth and power in the already advantaged. In his Difference Principle, John Rawls argues that social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that the least advantaged get the most advantaged and no one should compromise their basic civil liberties at the expense of their minority identity, not just in distribution but in practice. The Selective Enrollment system allows the opportunity for students from every zip code to receive arguably the best public school education across the city, and while it is a system that only serves a slim minority of the high school aged children in the city, it is a start towards bridging the equality gap. Yet, with the institution of socioeconomic basis of admittance, these opportunities are stripped of the minority population.
Especially in a city like Chicago, where the stratification is quite noticeable, looking at the intersectionality between race and wealth is essential to understanding the root causes and eventually reaching a solution. Bayard Rustin, throughout From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement, uses his experience as part of the Civil Rights Movement to analyze this intersectionality and provide plans to affect the discrimination. He argues that focusing on the socioeconomic issues of African Americans only fixes the de facto discrimination, or the effects of discrimination stemming in law and order, which has since the publication of this pamphlet has objectively improved immensely. Rather, recognizing racial bigotry will help disintegrate the de jure discrimination, or internal prejudices and personal acts of hatred, will better fix these issues, as it gets to the root cause. Individuals who hold underlying negative predisposition will be more likely to give political power to those who will act on micro aggressions and hold intolerance, which will perpetuate further discrimination.
Therefore, framing the acceptance of students into this highly venerated education system through the means of race allows to directly combat the consequent issues of hyper segregation, racial stereotyping, and intense socioeconomic stratification in Chicago, rather than the way it is now which only allows for a temporary solution not linked to the heart of the problem. While this is just one example, the Chicago Public School Selective Enrollment system serves as a microcosm highlighting how we should continue in combatting education inequality.
Focusing on socioeconomic inequality limits or even hinders progress towards equality, therefore, explicitly using race as a means to achieve equality is best. Although there will be little steps, these will eventually allow for a nation where it will be natural to uphold the decree that men are not only created equal, but they are equal.
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