As Maria Ferguson notes in this month’s Washington View column, Operation Varsity Blues — the wide-ranging federal investigation into cheating and bribery in elite college admissions — already ranks as “one of the biggest education stories in years.” Since March, when the news broke, pundits have issued a steady stream of angry op-eds denouncing not just the 50 celebrities and CEOs indicted for sleazing their kids into schools like Yale and Georgetown, but also the many other (perfectly legal) ways in which well-to-do parents secure coveted spots at selective colleges for their children: making big donations, taking advantage of “legacy” admissions, hiring private college counselors, paying for test-prep services, and so on.
To longtime readers of Kappan, none of this should come as a surprise. Few topics have received more attention, in these pages, than the inequitable distribution of educational resources and opportunities. Decade after decade, researchers have found that the more affluent the students, the more likely they are to study with the most experienced teachers, go to the schools with the nicest facilities, have access to the newest equipment, and enjoy many other advantages.
Nor, for that matter, should any of this come as a surprise to the general public. For instance, every point that has been argued in response to the Varsity Blues scandal has already been detailed in best sellers such as Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) and Daniel Golden’s The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates (Random House, 2005). Anybody who thought rich and poor kids were competing on an even playing field simply hasn’t been paying attention.
They sure are paying attention now, though. In part, as Ferguson points out, that’s due to the celebrities involved in the Varsity Blues scandal and the sheer audacity of the fraud they appear to have committed. No doubt, though, much of it also has to do with the heightened sense of economic anxiety and resentment that has bubbled up during our “Second Gilded Age,” as many have called the present era (though, argues the historian David Huyssen, 2019, the analogy to 19th-century America could lead us to underestimate just how challenging it will be to reduce today’s wealth gaps). For many people, stories about inequality hit an awfully raw nerve right now.
That makes it an opportune moment to publish an issue on the question of who gets what in our schools. But that doesn’t make it an easy moment. In this month’s Kappan, we’ve sought to acknowledge just how touchy, even terrifying, the current economic trends may seem to educators who’ve devoted their professional lives to promoting equitable opportunities for all kids. But while it’s tempting to choose a polemical tone, we’ve opted for a pragmatic one: What should today’s educators know, we’ve asked, about the effectiveness of existing legal and political strategies meant to level the playing field? What should states be doing, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, to ensure more equal access to effective teachers? And how do current state and local policies help or hinder efforts to equalize school funding and other resources?
Huyssen, D. (2019, April 1). We won’t get out of the Second Gilded Age the way we got out of the first. Vox. www.vox.com/first-person/2019/4/1/18286084/gilded-age-income-inequality-robber-baron
Citation: Heller, R. (2019). The editor’s note: Equity in anxious times. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (8), 4.