In his book, “Fear and Learning in America,” Superintendent John Kuhn states this fact:”the rich get a richer education.” He’s not alone in this thinking. Many education reformers and critics have noticed the significant difference in funding between schools — and how it affects overall achievement.
Inequity in education is not a secret, but some critics want to make funding’s role in inequality into something small — some new beakers for the science labs or a brand-new football stadium. That’s not what it is.
When Margaret Spellings, UNC System President and Former Secretary of Education under President Bush, helped to craft No Child Left Behind, she did so because, in her words, education establishments before “thought it fine, even appropriate, to set different academic expectations for kids based on their ethnicity, zip code, or parents’ income.” Spellings makes her efforts and the eventual construction of NCLB to be a valiant effort to close the achievement gap, which has not diminished in the 14 years since NCLB’s implementation. What Spellings and her comrades fail to take into account is the social capital that goes along with the educational experience — the inherent advantage some students have over others. NCLB sets standards, but fails to provide opportunities to help students grow to meet these standards. In an often used turn of phrase, standardized testing proponents and policy officials expect students to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps, failing to recognize that some don’t have boots to begin with.”
Kuhn defends attacks on teacher and student performance by citing discrepancies in funding. In two communities in Texas, which he renames “Plateau Villa” and “Workman,” discrepancies between average income totals to over $130,000 per annum despite nearly equal population sizes. Similarly, Plateau Villa is allotted $36,078,000 with which to educate its pupils. Workman is allotted $29,838,000. This impacts more than the schools’ ability to have quality labs or gymnasiums; indeed, schools with greater funding have lower teacher turnover rate — in Plateau Villa, the staff turnover rate was half as high as in Workman.
So what does this have to do with UNC schools? Everything. Kuhn makes the important observation that “[Education reformers] are all for saving poor Black children, as long as it can be done on the cheap.” In 2015, North Carolina legislature introduced HB 97, a bill to make “basic budget appropriations” for various state institutions, including the public universities and colleges of North Carolina.
According to the law, review of six-year graduation rates in North Carolina revealed that “the six-year graduation rate for students pursuing a baccalaureate degree from any constituent institution of The University of North Carolina is too low.” In order to combat this, HB 97 set forth guidelines for the creation of a new program, “North Carolina Guaranteed Admission Program,” which would allow students deemed unprepared by the admissions committee to automatically enroll in UNC after two years at a community college.
Here’s the problem. This initiative will disproportionately harm minority and low-income students who specifically have lower rates of retention and graduation than white, middle-income students. In 2014, African American students had a retention rate at any UNC institution of 83.9% for the first year; this dropped to 75.2% by the second year. Up to 2010, UNC-CH students who were Pell Grant recipients maintained a lower retention rate than students who were not; in the years since, the retention rate for these students has surpassed or matched that of non-Pell Grant recipients. As a third and significant variable, First Generation College Students (FGCS) have consistently lower retention rates than students with a parent or guardian attended college. For each group, there are often structural and extenuating circumstances that must be taken into account: level of inclusion on campus, familial obligation, and necessary employment, to name just a few.
And, just to be clear, there is a positive and significant relationship between students who are identified as FGCS or Pell Grant recipients and their racial and socioeconomic demographics. A 2014 study found that 38.2 percent of FGCS identified as Latino; 22.6 percent as African American; and 16.8 percent as Native American. Only 13.2 percent identified as Caucasian. Additionally, the same study found that 30 percent of FGCS families earned an annual income of less than $25,000. Students who come from low-income and minority backgrounds are more likely to attend low-income schools, which already limits their opportunities to attend college.
Getting into college is hard, and this law just aims to make it harder for students already disadvantaged by a capitalist and discriminatory system – students who might have the “credentials” to get into UNC but who are limited by a Board of Governors that arbitrarily finds them in the bottom percentiles of students deemed unfit for initial admission.
Enacting this law — which will disincentivize students who worked hard to get into a UNC System school — will ultimately harm UNC’s chances to have a diverse student body. Kuhn admonishes reformers for wanting to create reform “on the cheap.” This example is a case in point. The General Assembly is worried about “wasting” money on students who won’t graduate, so instead of creating measures to support these students before graduation through increased funding to low-income schools, they have arbitrarily increased barriers to accessing UNC’s most prestigious schools. Spellings makes $775,000 a year with a home, a car and utility payments included. It’s time legislators get their priorities right and put their money with their mouths are. “Inequity is not inevitable,” Kuhn says, but without a radical change in representation, it sure seems so. Food for thought: how many after school tutors or new textbooks or preparatory courses could be funded with the amount of money negotiated as our esteemed President’s initial salary?