Micah van Praag

Micah van Praag

A while back, I was mindlessly swiping through stories on Instagram. One particular post caught my attention. It was a post by The New York Times about a teenage student attempting to attend class on an iPhone with a cracked screen. The iPhone showed a lagging and blurry depiction of the teacher on a Zoom meeting. I was puzzled. 

When I contemplated the difference between my situation –– of being able to attend class with an adequate WiFi connection and a school-provided laptop –– with that of the student in the New York Times post, I came to the realization that in the race for academic progress, the playing field is not always level. The example of the student struggling during quarantine is only a glimpse of the underlying problem of inequity in the education system. 

Sean Reardon of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford states that the achievement gap between richer students and poorer students is now larger than it has ever been, and a recent article from The Atlantic by Alana Semuels shows this is due to schools being locally funded, using property taxes. The use of property taxes for school funding causes schools in wealthier districts to spend more on each student than schools in poorer areas. In areas where the property is worth less, families typically have lower-incomes, and the taxes used for schools are lower. This starts a cycle of kids from wealthier families receiving a better education, and kids from poorer families receiving much worse. 

Take for example the large differences in educational opportunity between richer and poorer areas in Connecticut. An article in The Atlantic stated that in Connecticut, the city of Greenwich, which is a more affluent area, has an annual library budget of $12,500. The far less affluent  East Hartford’s is zero. More affluent areas are able to provide students with up-to-date equipment; the article shows that students receive individual laptops in Manchester, but in New Britain, students do not. This gives further context for the student having to attend class on a half-working iPhone in the Instagram post. 

Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Education states that on a national scale, districts with high poverty levels spent 15.6% less per student than districts with low poverty levels, and data of graduation rates cited by Alana Semuels in the article show how, consequently, graduation rates are lower in poorer areas than in richer areas. 

We must raise up schools in poorer districts and give every student a fair shot in the education system, especially now that, according to Eduardo Porter in a New York Times article, having a college degree is more important than ever for getting a good career. However, because this is such a complex endeavor, we first need to start small. I think a good place to start is to provide every student with the necessary tools for education: a laptop and internet connection. Since laptops are not given in poorer areas such as New Britain, Connecticut, and since, according to the Pew Research Center, 15% of families with children of school age do not have access to a high-speed internet connection, this would help many students, particularly with regard to the coronavirus pandemic, during which students have struggled much more.

Why do we accept that certain students have access to the tools necessary for education, while others do not? Why do we accept that certain students are given more opportunities to progress academically than others? How can this be consistent with the idea of freedom? Should the United States, with all its economic and technological abilities and qualities, not be able to provide a fair education system? 

I share Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski’s amazement with the human mind; we are able to self-reflect, contemplate, set goals, and discipline ourselves. And looking at what humans have done in the past, how much potential we have –– Darwin becoming who he became despite no one believing he would ever become successful; Muhammed Ali not being a natural fighter, but working hard and accomplishing great success anyways––is it not a sad prospect that the potential in some could be blocked because of where they were born in the United States? Should being born in the United States not, by default, give enough opportunity for social mobility, and living up to one’s potential?

Not everyone will become equally successful, competition is both natural and necessary for progress, and not everyone will have an equal starting point; trying to make everyone completely equal at birth is simply impossible, and we cannot equalize people’s outcomes. But our education system has to be fair; our outcomes must be decided as much as possible by our personal responsibility––our free will. They cannot be determined by external factors that help or hurt one based on where they were born.

Micah van Praag is a junior at Orange High School.