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The Need for Reforming Education Inequality in the US

Photo by: Scarlet Sappho. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0


The inequality within the US education system is not new, and yet has been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic with 76% of students in the US being affected by COVID lockdowns. This is further amplified as an issue as many human rights organisations, including the UN, hold education as a basic human right. Yet, the US Supreme Court ruled in the 1972 San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez case that the US Constitution does not outline education as a human right (argued under the Fourteenth Amendment). As there is no cultural need for this issue to have significant reform, the educational system has not been equipped with the necessary resources. However, the COVID-19 pandemic may allow for substantial change, as federal funding of $730 billion is coming through for several agencies, including the Department of Education. This is an exciting opportunity for equal access to be given to students across the US.

Darling-Hammond outlines the vicious cycle that property tax funding the education system has had on low-wealth districts. Darling-Hammond looks to legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which states the requirement for qualified and experienced teachers, the need for states that receive federal funds to report their movement to equity as well as their achievements, and for states to redesign school finance formulas to focus on pupils needs. Other solutions explored are more community-led. Haynes & Jones look to communities as “a key resource for school leaders, as they host a wealth of additional expertise, knowledge, and local capacity,” especially due to COVID-19. Kirshner outlines the role of youth activism in educational reform, explicitly highlighting the locally-organised agencies that treated all members as partners, where ultimately, these organisations that encourage youth participation in the discussion of education inequality are the strongest. Kirshner angles young people not as policy objects but as partners in public work. This choice allowed for systematic changes, like better teacher-student relationships of mutual respect and individual ground-breaking change, like senior staff members being taught the true existence of those experiencing such inequality. Lastly, Sutton’s research found the need for State Constitution amendments after the 1972 Rodriguez Supreme Court Case found that the US Constitution does not state that education should be equal. Cases taken to state Supreme Courts have had a near 66% success that educational equality is covered in their state Constitutions. Yet, Sutton’s work is from nearly 15 years ago and many States need to take further steps.


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has outlined that this issue should already be protected under the Bill of Rights and US Constitution, yet this has obviously not been the case. Justice Powell spoke after the Rodriquez case of the difficulties of differing state needs that are difficult to solve through breaking new ground using the US Constitution9. Ultimately, there is not a standardised framework that runs through the U.S of how the education system should be funded. Yet, this is not necessarily an issue, as Sutton outlines, due to the fact that a one-fit-all approach is not always appropriate. While legislation has tried to remedy some of these issues, the states are individually responsible for their citizens. Competing issues can take priority and education equity is not seen as crucial as it should be. Additionally, as Darling-Hammond outlined, there is a systemic issue in the way schools are funded. When schools are primarily funded through local property taxes, insufficiently housed communities create a cycle of inadequately funded education systems for these communities. The way schools are currently funded needs reformation. Additionally, the alarming rate of 8.6% inflation in the US has caused many Congress people to deliberate whether further funding is the right area to allocate money, instead of other public bodies. Other intrinsically protected areas will take precedent, furthering the inequality in this learning sector.


Many solutions can have a reaching effect, both policy-led and community-led.

Firstly, policy solutions like ESSA have their place in trying to equal the education system for students. This is a bipartisan piece of legislation and should have some success with local legislators - either by contacting them directly or mobilising with others who can amplify the voice of better equality created through better distribution of resources across the States. Whilst there has been research into the ineffectiveness of ESSA during the pandemic, this research did find other ways of helping with equality in resources. There will be an additional $20 billion investment in high-poverty schools after the $122 American Rescue Plan that targeted those disproportionately affected by COVID-19. This solution goes further than Darling-Hammond’s work, where there is the impending need for technology reformation in schools. There have been targeted proposals using new technology under the same title that the $20 billion will cover, arguing that the wide-impacting inequality that particularly emerged through COVID-19; technology, is starting to be addressed. However, there is a slight resistance due to current inflation, to invest substantial amounts of money into the education system. Thus, looking at other solutions to the inequality crisis is important.

Secondly, one of the most effective reformation changes has been through state Constitutional amendments. States like California and Rhode Island currently have referendums on bringing equitable education into their state Constitutions. In contrast, New York and New Mexico have proposed legislation bringing in amendments to provide equal resources. States like Illinois and Vermont have successfully adapted this to their Constitution. The latter’s amendments, beginning in 1997, through fiscal neutrality and proportional taxation on state citizens, have led to equity, where Illinois’s Constitution puts primary responsibility on the State. Whilst it is state dependent on local needs, policy transfer from other states’ amendments to a state’s Constitution is necessary and hugely significant, especially considering the success rate Sutton’s research outlined. Looking at your state’s individual move towards ratifying equitable education will be a solution of high sustainability.

Lastly, there are a vast number of community-led solutions. Looking at local community-led projects like the one Kirshner worked in created impactful change. The resistance to further budgetary measures means that community-led solutions are even more crucial, where these autonomous bodies will be able to regulate and financially intervene in their communities and who need serving immediately. All these solutions can work well independently or collectively, depending on the culture of the state.



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