Improving Academic Performance

'Equity' in Education

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Wed, Jun 27, 2012 @ 07:58 AM

The word ‘equity’ often carries a loaded meaning, and in no realm is

the debate more polarizing than in the field of education.  When it

comes to education, equity appears to be a noble goal – an end in and

of itself to which society should aspire.  .  A recent article in The

Atlantic highlights some of the most relevant issues in the debate by

contrasting the American system to the Finnish system.

Click here to read the Atlantic Article

Indeed, the lessons gleaned from the comparison are quite striking –

Finland’s move to a national system focused on school equality has

been linked to a massive increase in student performance while the

increasing inequities apparent in the American system have paralleled

a considerable decline.  However, with regards to equity of education

in the United States, the debate often reduces itself to a small set

of practical realities, some of which go far beyond schools, teachers,

and students.  If equity is indeed the ideal goal, what hurdles must

be overcome for us to get there?  More importantly, what practical

solutions are there for students caught in a system where the gap

between the “haves” and “have nots” continues to grow?

The American school system is in urgent need of reform – it’s

something that every politician and American can (should) get behind.

However, one philosophical and one practical question divide mix and

divide the public:

1)     How should we define “equality” with regards to education?

2)     What is the most equitable way to fund schools?

With regards to the first question, many will argue that equality of

education means identical educational programs and facilities across

all grade levels (this is essentially the Finnish model).  Others

opine that equality means equal access to a public school which meets

certain minimum standards set by the Federal/State/Local government

(this is the American model today).  Still others will argue that

equality of education is purely about equal outcomes for student


1)      Equality of programs (current Finland)

2)      Equality of access (current US system)

3)      Equality of outcomes (objective of NCLB?)

No matter which goal one believes our society should strive for, it is

clear that the underlying practicality of how whether/how to equitably

fund schools stands in the way.  This issue is deeply rooted in the

fabric of America.  The American Federal system checks the power of

the federal government by empowering state and local governments to

control many government functions (e.g., police, fire).  The elegance

of the system, in theory, is that people will vote with their feet if

they disagree with state policies, and thus the best policies will win

out in the long run.  The control of education funding is left to

state and local school boards and comes primarily from local property

taxes.  Only national/interstate matters fall under the control of the

Federal government.  It is this system which is responsible for the

massive disparity in funding between the best and worst schools in

this country – and this level of funding can be directly linked to

outcomes (I cite no literature here, but challenge the reader to

reader to find either empirical and experiential evidence to the


In fact, the question about equity in education really comes down to

economics – who will control funding, and how will those decisions be

made.  The reality of this debate in the United States is that local

funding will continue to hold sway unless the greater good AND

individual good is demonstrated to be better with State control.

Thus, for all the rhetoric that national politicians put on the state

about national education reform, the real power rests with the state

and county tax authorities.  It is the beauty of the American Federal

system which perhaps brings change closer than one might imagine.

Populists rejoice!