America's Classist Education System

America's education system is unequal and unfair. Students who live in wealthy communities have huge advantages that rig the system in their favor. They have more experienced teachers and a much lower student-teacher ratio. They have more modern facilities, more up-to-date computer and science equipment, and more up-to-date textbooks. They have more elective courses, more music and art offerings, and more extracurricular programs. They have better libraries, more guidance counselors and superior athletic facilities.


Not surprisingly, affluent students in well-off school districts have higher rates of high school graduation, college attendance and entry to the more selective colleges. This has little to do with intelligence or ability. For example, 82 percent of affluent students who had SAT scores over 1200 graduate from college. In contrast, only 44 percent of low-income students with the same high SAT scores graduate from college. This wide gap can't be explained by differences in motivation or smarts. It can, however, be explained by differences in money.

All parents want what is best for their children, but some parents -- and states and school districts -- have greater means to provide them with educational resources.

Last year, the average per-student expenditure for public K-12 schools in the United States was $10,938, but states varied greatly in how much they invested in students, from $19,752 in Vermont to $6,949 in Arizona. There are also huge disparities within states, between wealthy suburban school districts and poorer urban and rural school districts. Efforts by some states to equalize funding between affluent and poor school districts -- often prompted by law suits -- have not significantly narrowed the per-student spending gap in part because of loopholes in the laws and in part because of huge disparities in private fundraising for public schools.

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California reflects this embarrassing aspect of America's class system. Compared with other states, California ranks close to the bottom in per-student spending on public education as well as student-teacher ratios, librarians, guidance counselors, and other measures, even with the additional funding from Proposition 30. And withinCalifornia, there are still huge disparities in per-student spending between school districts, despite the new local control funding formula adopted by the state legislature.

Even if the state government allocated exactly the same amount per student to every school district, disparities would remain between the wealthiest and the poorest school districts. The reason is that school districts vary widely in their capacity tosupplement state funding with locally raised money.

The Los Angeles Times recently published an article that zeroed in on one aspect of California's educational class system: local private education foundations. In his July 12 article "Private Summer Schools Prompt Debate on Education Inequality," reporter Stephen Ceasar focused on how these foundations exacerbate the disparities between affluent and non-affluent school districts. To illustrate how the accident of geography and wealth shapes the educational opportunities available to students in different communities, Ceasar looked at the growing number of summer schools sponsored by these local private foundations. 

As California school districts face budget crises, many of them have downsized or totally eliminated their summer schools. To replace publicly funded summer schools, some districts call on their local education foundations to sponsor summer schools. But, as Ceasar noted, it is the wealthier districts that are most likely to sponsor their own summer schools and affluent students whose families are most likely to have the means to pay for the summer classes that provide educational enrichment, help students make up courses they missed or failed during the academic year, and look good on students' transcripts when they apply to college.

There are over 600 local education foundations in California. They raise money from individuals and businesses to compensate for shortfalls in state funding. According to Ceasar, these private foundations "contribute to an already wide inequity in educational opportunity by offering public school credit at a cost only some can afford."

Just within Los Angeles County, there are huge differences between wealthy communities like La Cañada Flintridge (with a median household income of $154,947 and 2.1 percent poverty rate) and San Marino ($139,122 -- 4.6 percent) and poorer cities like Pomona ($48,864 -- 20.4 percent) and Huntington Park ($36,620 -- 27.7 percent) in their ability to raise additional money for their local schools.

As Ceasar reported in the Times, the privately funded summer school in Beverly Hills charges $798 per course. Its counterpart in La Cañada Flintridge charges $775. The Arcadia Education Foundation's summer school sets parents back $605 per course, plus a $25 registration fee.

Students from school districts with mostly low-income and working-class students aren't so lucky. Their parents don't have the income to pay the tuition required to operate summer school. Even if those communities have a privately funded school foundation, they lack the affluent families or corporate ties to raise funds to subsidize the cost for low-income families.

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