During an international crisis on the old West Wing television series, President Josiah Bartlett asks rhetorically, “Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?” His speechwriter, Will Bailey*, retorts, “I don’t know, sir, but it is.”
That subtle act — telling truth to power — induces angst and spiritual upheaval in the fictional leader of the free world thereby inspiring a new policy initiative supporting human rights everywhere and declaring the preservation of human life to be a vital national interest. Alas, life has yet to imitate art…
Flash forward to real life in the 21st Century and access to an adequate public education for all children has become the social justice issue of our time. To date, this society has declined every entreaty to allocate sufficient resources to the task. So, social darwinism ends up the last recourse for children of certain zip codes.
Over a decade ago, the Thornton Commission finished its landmark study. Dr. Alvin Thornton put us all on notice by declaring that, “We know the characteristics of excellent schools; we simply allow disparities to exist.” Almost without exception, children of the socio-economically disadvantaged bear the brunt of those disparities.
In her new book, Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch presents compelling evidence that the achievement gap between ethnicities has closed over the last three decades. However, she also notes that the achievement gap between the affluent and the impoverished has nearly doubled in the same time frame.
For a whole host of reasons, children living in poverty arrive in kindergarten well behind their more affluent peers. When both parents work long hours at subsistence wages, for example, a child’s exposure to spoken language seldom approaches the 10,000 words daily that facilitate fluency. Affluence, on the other hand, furnishes more access to face time with parents as well as books, educational toys and experiential learning.
When a majority of a school’s population lives in poverty, lack of access to adequate educational resources compounds the challenges faced by rank-and-file educators.
In Prince George’s County, a super-majority of children live below the poverty line, and some schools have concentrations approaching 100 percent. Our annual per-pupil-spending still hovers close to 80 percent of our neighbors to the west, virtually the same proportion as in the early ’80s, and keeping salaries “competitive” with our neighbors translates into lower staffing ratios and, therefore, larger classes.
Simple maintenance of an inadequate effort will never yield the superior results we seek. More importantly, undifferentiated results will never arise from differentiated circumstances despite the harshest remonstrations of the “No Excuses” sect.
Our children remain far more likely to arrive hungry in class and to enter an overcrowded classroom staffed by an inexperienced educator. Our students remain far less likely to profit from enrichment courses and summer programs.
So, when did we surrender to the idea that young Prince Georgians will receive but a fraction of a complete education?
To echo the words of Will Bailey: I don’t know, friends and neighbors, but we did.
*The West Wing character
[The original version of the “Commentary” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on October 20, 2014. It has been revised and expanded.]