Equal Opportunity: A Grim Fairytale of Two Cities

Once upon a time in a land far away, a snafu of biblical proportions separated a set of identical twins in the regional hospital and sent them home with two sets of parents.  Both sets of unsuspecting parents would love their children unabashedly and without reservation. Both families were determined to do the best possible job raising their little bundles of joy.

The two lads possessed nearly identical aptitudes: prodigious intelligence and incredible potential at birth.  The first, Monty,  would live in the lap of luxury; the second, George, would know only hardships.  Monty, whose father was a highly successful investment banker, would know only privilege; George, whose father repaired small engines for a living, would discover life’s obstacles.  Monty’s parents had means; George’s parents belonged to that class of people called the working poor. They were good, honest, hard-working people, all, but at opposite ends of the economic ladder.

Monty went to live in a single family home in the suburbs with a crime rate next to zero; George went to the complexes.

Monty was doted upon by his mother and his nanny who encouraged every flight of fancy.  George watched hours of soap operas with the unlicensed daycare provider while his mother worked to make ends meet.

At age three, Monty started studying violin according to the Suzuki method with a replica of a Stradivarius; George listened to the radio, expressed an interest in music, but there was no room for an instrument and lessons in the household budget.

Monty was indulged with a computer, books and a plethora of educational toys; George’s parents managed to meet his basic human needs of food, shelter and clothing.

Little Monty’s stay-at-home mom read to him every night until he went to sleep; George’s mom would fall asleep by the second page weary from her constant labor.

Monty learned to read in a posh pre-school program while George waited still another year for a chance at kindergarten.

Monty and his father camped, hiked and sailed together on the weekend; George’s father worked a second job at the local gas station.

Monty eventually attended an elementary school with class sizes between fifteen and twenty-one; George’s classes were sometimes double that.  Monty’s teachers were highly-qualified and adequately compensated; George’s teachers were underpaid and inexperienced because a voter imposed tax-cap hindered appropriate funding of the schools.  Monty walked to the local school a few hundred yards from his home; George rode a bus for an hour to avoid the largely unsuccessful local school.

Every time Monty sneezed, he was off to see the doctor.  George’s parents had no healthcare coverage, so visits to the doctor were prohibitively expensive.   Monty seldom missed school; George was absent more.

The multi-purpose room at Monty’s school could not hold all the parents on Back-to-School night; the one at George’s school was sparsely populated because most parents were still at work.   The PTA at Monty’s school held fundraisers for all the little extras; George’s school suffered shortages of even the most basic supplies.

The parents in Monty’s school district financed political campaigns; the parents in George’s school district wrote letters.  Monty’s school district got fifty new certified teachers (among the the finest transferred from George’s school district!); George’s school district got bupkus.

When Monty started having difficulties with math and science, his parents hired a tutor.  When George had these problems, his parents would do their level best to help him with his homework.

Monty had access to a well-stocked school library; George’s school system had to spend that money on gasoline for the school buses.

It was discovered that Monty and George had IQ’s in the genius range.  Monty went off to private school to make acquaintances among the “elite” and to form lifelong friendships and connections.  George was placed in a still over-crowded “Talented And Gifted” class where perhaps a third of the students were misplaced.

By a bizarre quirk of fate, both Monty and George lost their fathers to heart attacks at the tender age of fifteen.  Monty and his mom received a huge trust and the proceeds of a sizable insurance policy.  George and his mom received, shall we say, a somewhat lesser check from Social Security.   

A year later their mothers were both rendered invalids by a stress related stroke.  Monty and George and their two siblings were sent to live with relatives.

Here we part ways with our young heroes and leave them to their devices.

Now, reader, which one, George or Monty, was more likely to get into a good college and excel there?

Some will argue that there are people like Monty who fail, and that, conversely, there are people like George who succeed beyond all expectations.  That is undoubtedly true.  However, this truth is best described as anecdotal.  It is called a statistical anomaly.  From time to time, an individual will surprise us with the unexpected for both good and ill.

What happens if we compare the statistics on 60,000 people like Monty and another 60,000 like George?  Which group do you think would have the higher SAT average?   Which group would put the most students in post-secondary education scenarios?  Which group would generate the most dropouts?  Which group would put the highest number in a correctional facility?  This is not rocket science.

There are those among us who decry educational spending as a sinkhole.  Some will say: “Throwing money at the problem will not resolve our educational woes!”  Some will tell us that family values, not money, will save our children.  Nonetheless, throwing money most assuredly seems to work, more often than not, for those who have the disposable income to dedicate to their children’s education.  Money is a medium of exchange; it supplies people with opportunities that those without it will never know.

Will more money resolve every difficulty in our public schools?  It certainly will not.

But a sane, rational and egalitarian society must use every means at its disposal to prepare all children to compete in an ever more complex and demanding world, even (especially?) the children of the poor. A life among the socio-economically disadvantaged presents fewer opportunities.  If the playing field of life is ever to be leveled, it may even be necessary to allocate more dollars, not fewer, in schools where poverty is prevalent. In the end this is a self-serving act, because we do not know what someone like George may contribute if furnished with circumstances favorable to personal growth.  The child you act now to save may one day save you.

In Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”, George Bailey tells Mr. Potter that the poor do most of the working, and living, and dying in Bedford Falls, and that it should not be too much for them to expect a couple decent rooms and running water.  Permit me to suggest that the amenity of a great school be added to that list, one staffed by competent and committed professionals armed with adequate resources. Ultimately, this society will be judged on how it responds to this challenge. Will we tighten our belts and make the necessary sacrifices for the good of all our children, or will the rich continue to get richer, and the poor…

Well, you know the rest.  But, please, do not try to claim that money, or the lack thereof, is irrelevant to educational opportunity and/or performance.

[This is a slightly re-worked update from a commentary in 2000 originally published in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal.] 

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