The history of U.S. education has included a record of inequity for and discrimination against many students and communities of color. The concept and practice of educational equity has been a long-developed and sought-after goal of educators, activists, parents, and students who aim to ensure that all students have equal educational opportunities. Those working toward educational equity have attempted to highlight current and historical policies and practices that have marginalized students, while also advocating for changes in perspective.
Unequal school funding, tracking, discipline, and the lack of access to a rigorous curriculum are some of the issues that have sustained the struggle for equity. Although this struggle is long-standing, research and scholarly debate over equity in education has gained increased attention in recent years. For scholars who engage in educational research, inform policy debate, and lead from within multiple school settings, as well as those who advocate for social and community change, educational equity remains an uncompleted goal. This entry provides a brief summary of the issues and three areas of contention: school financing, deficit-based research, and subtractive schooling.
A History Of Inequity
Discussion of race and racism, a complex and contentious topic, is foundational in the conceptualizing of educational equity. Although a universally accepted definition of race does not exist, multiple scholars have described it as a socially constructed concept in which power and a racial hierarchy lead to institutionalized and systemic inequity. Moreover, many scholars expand upon the narrow conceptualization of race or racism as discrimination or inequity based on biology or skin color. They attempt to shift the discussion to systemic, institutional, or historical notions of discrimination or oppression, such as the way funding systems have been developed and implemented in a manner that disadvantages communities and students of color. For Latinas/os, scholars point to issues of immigration, language policy, and accountability systems as examples of educational policies and practices that continue to institute racial inequity.
While African American scholars as far back as W. E. B. Du Bois have written about the “problem of the color line,” accurately pointing out structural and/or systemic inequity based on race, the problem has persisted into the twenty-first century. Some educational scholars contend that the problem no longer exists, but research demonstrates that inequity remains entrenched in U.S. educational systems, policies, and practice.
Examples of blatant racism and gross inequity are ubiquitous in the history of U.S. education, a history that informs current educational inequity. Thus analyses of state educational finance systems provide evidence of long-standing and hard-fought civil rights litigation, years of legislative stalling, and ongoing grassroots political activism striving to change school finance policies. In Texas, most districts where property values and the taxes based on them are low have historically consisted of students of color, while districts with high values and greater tax revenues have predominantly consisted of White students.
The Texas legislature resisted a shift to a more equitable system until 1995, when concerned parents from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the state initiated a campaign of litigation, social action, and legislative battles to achieve an “equalized” system. Similar actions occurred in states such as New Jersey and New York. As with school funding issues, historical inequity continues to shape the current situation in areas such as access to rigorous and culturally relevant curricula, highly qualified and caring teachers, and higher educational opportunities.
Educational practice, policy, and research continue to marginalize children of color. Deficit-based research focuses on students, parents, or communities of color as the primary “problem” in educational underachievement. It blames the victim, often society’s least powerful members, rather than placing the onus on the educational systems developed, implemented, and administered by predominantly White educators and educational leaders. Equity-oriented scholars contend that an inherent danger to democracy and social justice exists when policy makers, education leaders, and school administrators fail to critically analyze the effects of education policy on the most vulnerable of schoolchildren. When analyses and practice are based on deficit notions, the danger to educational equity becomes more apparent.
In addition, subtractive schooling processes negate the home language, culture, traditions, and knowledge that students bring with them to the classroom, resulting in what equity scholars see as another barrier to educational equity. Rather than viewing students of color and their families as “holders and creators of knowledge,” subtractive schooling practices further entrench school inequity and create challenges for advocates, researchers, and educators trying to make education more equitable for all school children.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. (1994). The souls of Black folk. New York: Dover. (Original work published 1903)
- Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1994). Racial formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
- Spring, J. (1997). The American school: 1642–2000 (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Valencia, R. R., & Black, M. S. (2002). “Mexican Americans don’t value education!”—on the basis of the myth, mythmaking, and debunking. Journal of Latinos and Education, 1(2), 81–102.
- Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Woodson, C. G. (1998). The mis-education of the Negro. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. (Original edition published 1933)
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