Geof Stone on the Roots of Inequality in Education
The growing income inequality in the United States since the 1970s is a source of great concern for many Americans. The historic notion that, in America, upward mobility is in the hands of the individual increasingly seems more fiction than reality. Many factors have contributed to this state of affairs, but one important one is growing inequality in education. Some of the responsibility for this state of affairs rests with the Supreme Court. Although the Supreme Court building declares “Equal Justice Under Law,” on this issue, the Court has failed to live up to its own promise.
The state of public education in the United States is widely acknowledged to be little short of disastrous. This is due, in no small part, to a relatively obscure 1973 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. In a hotly contested 5-to-4 decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the Court held that there is no constitutional right to an equal education. In so doing, it declined to address a fundamental problem that has undermined American public education ever since.
The problem, quite simply, is inequality of resources. There is a strong, though not perfect, correlation between dollars spent per pupil and student education outcomes (measured by such factors as dropout rates, high school graduation rates, scores on standardized tests, etc.). The correlation is especially robust in the lower grades, when students are in their formative years. According to a recent study, for example, a 10 percent increase in per pupil expenditures generates a 4 percent increase in graduation rates.