Underprivileged students are at a disadvantage in our public school system as it stands, and the inadequacy of public schools to serve those who need education most is creeping its way up to the University of Wisconsin. Bringing the situation to light is the lively discussion of late surrounding the UW System's move this spring to a "holistic" admissions policy — which, as UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley described it, is a measure put in place to compensate for an inherently unequal society.
While applying a Band-Aid to the situation at a collegiate level might be a defensible short-term tactic, the roots of the problem are what need a first-aid kit — or, more accurately, a trip to the operating room for reconstructive surgery.
In the state of Wisconsin, public elementary and secondary schools are funded by a mixture of about one part federal funds, five parts state funds and four parts local funds, coming primarily from property taxes. The specific percentages vary from year to year and from district to district, as the actual amount of state funding — about $5 billion allotted primarily through "equalization aid" — is divvied up on a per-district basis.
The equalization aid formula takes property values into account in an effort to equalize per-student funding for education across the state and does an adequate job of distributing state funds to impoverished districts. Milwaukee Public Schools, for example, receive more state funds per student than schools in Mequon or Waunakee in order to begin compensating for lower property tax revenues.
The formula assumes, however, that the cost of educating a child is equal across the state — an assumption that is critically flawed.
While many are quick to attribute property taxes' role in funding public schools to the cause of a weak public school system in the United States, it seems the problem is more fundamental. In order to really transform public education, the government needs to do more than equally fund public schools in all areas.
Ironically, inequality in public school funding is a necessity — the overall funding flow just needs to be reversed to start leveling the playing field for poor kids, regardless of who specifically picks up the tab.
That conclusion follows naturally upon further consideration of what it takes to get a full education. For most of us at UW, it's a study of all the factors that propelled us to attend this fine institution — most of which, undoubtedly, weren't picked up in school at all.
Anecdotally, my parents could have kept me locked inside the house growing up and never showed me a single textbook, and I'd still think college was mandatory — that's just the environment that was provided for me as a child. The tools were there for the taking; I just had to maintain a pulse. And as far as I'm concerned, almost anyone I knew growing up was practically given a college degree alongside a salaried job with benefits the second he or she stepped into kindergarten.
Kids from upscale areas just need to look at their parents to see how to be successful. Living in privileged areas, kids with means are surrounded by other kids with means and other sets of parents who have been successful themselves. Beyond just having more funds, these kids are immersed in an environment of how to become and stay wealthy — or at least get by and stay above the poverty line.
The problem, of course, is that parents want the best for their own kids — and a state budget that would pour funds disproportionately into poor kids' schooling would be decidedly hard to swallow for voters. The change would require a fundamental shift in the majority mindset — an acknowledgement that those without means need more help than those who have a support network in place — and it's worth it in order to give everyone an equal footing starting out in this country.
While the redistribution of wealth is a touchy subject for anyone even remotely outside the typical liberal realm, the idea that anyone can make it in America based on personal effort and drive alone is not. This is a country of self-made millionaires, and the idea that some of them are less self-made than others seems contradictory to our enthusiasm for individual accomplishment.
A public education system that doesn't actively take steps to counteract inequalities in its student base will only perpetuate those inequalities, and it's time for us to start thinking about how to make a change.
And then we can start talking about ripping Mr. Wiley's Band-Aid off.
Taylor Hughes ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in information systems.