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Our schools have an equity problem: What should we do about it? By Danielle Gonzales and Ross Wiener


hat is educational equity,

poverty is at its lowest since the

whereby all students have

ESEA was enacted.

Much has changed even since the passage of ESSA. The last year

equal access to opportunities for a

In 1960, 85.7 percent of public

brought not only a new president and

high-quality education? What does

school students were white. Today,

a new U.S. secretary of education,

it look like when it’s successful, and

according to estimates from the

but also a documented increase in

what does it take to achieve it? These

National Center for Education Sta-

racial tension and hate crimes, sever-

questions have been driving our work

tistics, the majority of public school

al high-profile police shootings, and

at the Aspen Institute’s Education &

students are students of color. More

a number of state legislative bodies

Society Program for the past several

than half of public school students

that have or are considering “bath-

years, and even more so for the last

also qualify for subsidized meals

room bills” affecting transgender

18 months, as the result of a shift in

because of low family income. In

individuals’ ability to use the bath-

the federal role in public education

2014, 20 percent of school-age

room that matches their identity.

and concerns from the state leaders

children were in families living in

And the stubborn persistence of

with whom we work.

poverty, and children of color are

disparities in student opportunities

For most of the last half-century,

more than twice as likely as their

and outcomes remains.

the role of the federal government

white counterparts to be poor. By

What would true education equi-

has been to protect “the education

any objective measure, inside and

ty look like? One thing is certain:

of disadvantaged children,” as artic-

outside schools, public education

State leaders would need to play

ulated in the original Elementary and

has not served these students ade-

a key role. Even before ESSA was

Secondary Education Act of 1965

quately or equitably.

enacted, states had primary authori-

(ESEA). The bipartisan passage of

These challenges have an effect

ty for education as enshrined in each

the Every Student Succeeds Act

on students’ academics. The 2015

state’s constitution. As the federal

(ESSA), in 2015, maintains several

average reading scores of black and

role recedes, this generation of state

components of earlier versions of the

Latino U.S. students on the Program

education leaders will write a crucial

ESEA, but it also gives more flexibili-

for International Student Assessment

chapter, with profound implications

ty and responsibility to state leaders

fall below the U.S. average and are

for equity and broader implications

to define accountability and deter-

comparable with some developing

for our country and society. They

mine the interventions and supports

countries. And in 2013, students

will redefine state education policy,

for underperforming schools.

from high-income families were eight

as federal rules become less pre-

Just as our federal education

times more likely to have a bachelor’s

scriptive and federal political cover

laws have changed and evolved, so

degree by age 24 than their peers


too have our nation’s demographics.

from low-income families, according

Defining a clear state role in edu-

It is significant that the federal role is

to a 2015 report from the Pell Insti-

cational equity is not a small task.

downsized just as economic inequal-

tute for the Study of Opportunity in

To do this, we must get past talking

ity is at its highest and mobility from

Higher Education.

about and around equity and address


Danielle Gonzales is the assistant director for policy at the Washingtonbased Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program. Ross Wiener is the institute’s vice president and the executive director of the Education & Society Program.


The Illinois School Board Journal, March/April 2018  

A bimonthly magazine for public school board members and administrators highlighting issues in education.

The Illinois School Board Journal, March/April 2018  

A bimonthly magazine for public school board members and administrators highlighting issues in education.