Dismantling Stratification: Equal Education for All

February 18, 2019 by bmc85

By Christina Higgins

One of the first courses I was enrolled in as a freshman at UC Berkeley introduced me to the concept of social stratification. Social stratification refers to a society’s categorization of its people into rankings of socioeconomic tiers based on factors like wealth, income, race, education, and power.[1] In this particular class, we explored the various reasons as to why some groups are significantly more likely to succeed than others. One particular reason we examined was the impact of government policies that subtly inhibit certain groups from improving their socioeconomic status, and subsequently their social rank. An example of this type of policy involves the government allocation of public school funding. All public schools rely heavily on the property taxes of homes or buildings in the surrounding area for funding.[2] Property values in affluent areas are significantly higher than property values in low-income neighborhoods, meaning that communities with less revenue from property taxes will have less funding per pupil than communities with higher property tax revenue. [3]

A school-funding system that relies so heavily on local property taxes is clearly tied to the stratification dynamic: property values vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, district to district, so of course, a variance in school funding amongst districts dramatically grows the achievement gap between the nation’s wealthiest and poorest students.[4] The educational experiences of students from districts filled with homes and buildings of lower property values are adversely affected, as “schools serving large numbers” of children from poor families “typically lack the resources and expertise to respond to their academic and social needs.”[5] Contrastingly, schools in affluent areas have the adequate facilities, extra-curricular courses, and enrichment tools to set their students up for success. All of these factors combined play a monumental role in the trajectory of each student’s life path, as there is a strong correlation between educational attainment level and potential earning income.[6] Students from low-income areas are less likely to seek higher education opportunities and secure well-paying jobs in the future, whereas students from affluent areas are more likely to attend college and establish successful careers.[7]

This systemic dynamic can be overcome with policies and practices that provide additional support for students that attend schools in low-income areas. The Center for Law and Education (CLE) is a national legal advocacy organization that works to bridge the education gap between low-income and affluent communities through broad-based legislative reform.[8] To address fundamental public education problems effectively, the organization seeks to mobilize parents, community advocates, and school personnel to use law and policy to bring about broad-based district-level reform using varied strategies, including parent education and mobilization, direct legal representation, and school partnership for program improvement.[9]

The CLE’s multi-dimensional approach to education problems ensures the organization’s efficacy: in addition to shaping the formulation of governing legislation at the national level, the program also directly provides assistance to students, parents, and educators experiencing difficulty in implementing education initiatives at local and state levels.[10]

For example, in an effort to bring about reform at the national level, the CLE submitted comments to the Department of Education on their proposed regulations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.[11] Part 200 of the Act focuses on improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged, and Section 200.19 mandates states to identify not less than the lowest performing five percent of schools, for the purposes of providing them with additional support.[12] The comments explain how this identification system is limiting, as it merely compares the progress of schools, resulting in some schools being ignored only because there are other schools in the state that might be lower-performing.[13] The CLE proposed an amendment whereby states would identify, on their own terms, criteria by which schools should be determined to be in need of support and improvement—criteria that is robust enough to address all schools that are not on a path to meet their goals.[14]

At the local level, one CLE initiative involved collaboration with a Boston law firm for the purposes of creating a pro bono project aimed at serving at-risk youth in Massachusetts.[15] CLE attorneys assist in training the firm’s attorneys working on the project, who will provide representation for low-income students who are being deprived of effective education and related services.[16] The goal of the collaboration is to enhance the direct representation available to low-income students facing suspension, expulsion, and school placement decisions resulting in their denial of a quality public education.[17]

The CLE has earned a notable reputation, both statewide, and across the country, for its effective advocacy on behalf of low-income students.[18] Effectuating the right to a quality education for all students, regardless of their backgrounds, would increase career, vocational and higher education choices amongst students in underprivileged communities, hopefully resulting in a reduction in the widening achievement gap.

[1]  What is Social Stratification?, Lumen Learning,  https://courses.lumenlearning.com/sociology/chapter/what-is-social-stratification (last visited Oct. 1, 2018).

[2] Why America’s Schools Have a Money Problem, NPR (Oct. 18, 2016, 5:00 AM) https://www.npr.org/2016/04/18/474256366/why-americas-schools-have-a-money-problem.

[3]Funding an Education, Nat’l League of Cities, https://www.nlc.org/financing-public-education (last visited Oct. 1, 2018).

[4] NPR, supra note 2.

[5] Joe Williams & Pedro Noguera, Poor Schools or Poor Kids, Educ. Next 44, 46 (2010), https://www.educationnext.org/files/ednext_20101_44.pdf.

[6] Scott A. Wolla & Jessica Sullivan, Education, Income and Wealth, Fed. Res. Bank of St. Louis 1, 2 (2017), https://files.stlouisfed.org/files/htdocs/publications/page1-econ/2017-01-03/education-income-and-wealth_SE.pdf.

[7] Josh Kinsler & Ronni Pavan, Family Income and Higher Education Choices: The Importance of Accounting for College Quality 5 J. Hum. Cap. 453, 471–72 (2011).

[8] Forms of Assistance, Ctr. L. & Educ., https://www.cleweb.org/forms-assistance (last visited Oct. 20, 2018).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Center for Law and Education, Comment Letter on Proposed Regulations to 34 CFR Parts 200 and 299 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, As Amended by Every Student Succeeds Act—Accountability and State Plans (Aug. 1, 2016), http://www.cleweb.org/sites/cleweb.org/files/assets/Administrative/Advocacy/Center%20for%20Law%20and%20Education_Add%27l%20Comments%20Proposed%20ESSA%20Regs_34%20CFR%20Parts%20200%20and%20299.pdf.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Press Release, Center for Law and Education, Collaboration with Choate Hall & Stewart LLP to Create a Pro Bono Education Law Project Aimed at Serving At-Risk Youth in Massachusetts (2009), http://cleweb.redfinsolutions.net/sites/cleweb.org/files/assets/Legislative/Pro-Bono/probonopartnership.pdf.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.