Imagine if you were told that you were in a lottery and would receive food and water only if you won. This scenario is similar to what is happening in many public schools. Parents must place their child’s name into a lottery to secure a spot in their area’s best public or charter school. Receiving the best possible education should not only be a luxury for those who make the pick of the draw, and policy-makers shouldn’t be willing to accept this situation.

There is a real, ongoing and ever-growing achievement gap between students of color in underprivileged areas and privileged white students. For example, 17 of Detroit’s 22 high schools — which primarily have African-American students — are low-performing high schools, according to an Associated Press report from July 2009. On the other hand, the primarily white and affluent Grosse Pointe Public School System is considered to be among the nation’s best public districts.

Nonprofit organizations like Breakthrough Collaborative, Prep for Prep, The Jackie Robinson Foundation, The Algebra Project and The Young People’s Project are dedicated to bridging this achievement gap. There is a considerable amount of scholarly research and media attention being brought to this American social defect. And even with such efforts, the public school education system has reached a state of inequality and dysfunction that is treated by many as beyond repair.

The problems facing many public schools include overcrowded classrooms, insufficient numbers of textbooks, lack of parental involvement and deficiencies in the availability of resources like tutoring services and academic preparation for college. In many instances, students in underprivileged schools experience poor education starting in elementary and middle schools, making it more difficult for them to succeed in high school and college.

While the challenges that face youth in underserved communities are many and significant, there is a great deal of opportunity for growth and improvement. There has been plenty of dialogue about the problems that inner-city educational systems face. What is lacking is genuine change through action.

The disparities occurring in the public school education system are perhaps the biggest disgrace to this country. This issue should receive much higher priority from policy-makers and deserves as much priority that has been given to the economic crisis. In many cases, public opinion is crafted by the media, and to a large extent, it is the media that decides what should be a priority on the political agenda. As a student who was educated in the public school system and a worker whose tax dollars fund public education, I want the rehabilitation of public schools to be given as much attention in the media and on the legislative agenda as the health care bill. And I can’t help but notice that it hasn’t.

Public schools in America are experiencing one of the same problems that is hurting health care and affecting the American economy: a lack of oversight and intervention. Not long ago, I heard Bob Moses, founder of The Algebra Project, name the state of public school education as the “most blatant display of Jim Crow” practices still in establishment. It’s unacceptable that this country and policy-makers in Washington D.C. are allowing unequal education to exist. It’s unacceptable that the quality of education that many students receive is being decided by a lottery pick. Statistical data often documents that a student’s access to opportunities is determined by the caliber of the school that the child attends. Davis Guggenheim — who directed the Oscar-winning 2006 global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and is returning this year with “Waiting For Superman,” a documentary that tackles hidden truths about public school education — has correctly pointed out that “mediocrity and dysfunction” are dominating public education. The issue desperately needs attention and action.

This is an issue that should be dealt with in public debate. But while health care and the financial crisis have received plenty of legislative response, the equally important issue of disparities in public education continues to be largely unaddressed by the U.S. Congress.

We might like to live in a country where the American dream is accessible to anyone who can pull himself or herself by the bootstraps. But this ideal is at odds with a public education system that creates and perpetuates unequal access to the opportunities, education and skills necessary for success. The lottery of educational opportunity is unfair and has high stakes, and many students of color within a failing public school systems continue to have the odds stacked against them. Policy-makers at the federal level need to direct their attention to this problem and take concrete steps to bridge the achievement gap present throughout this country.

Brittany Smith can be reached at smitbrit@umich.edu.

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