For the past few months, there have been teacher walkouts in states like Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and the latest in North Carolina, where more than 15,000 teachers took their grievances to the state capital in Raleigh. These protests are about more than just teacher salaries, but about education spending in general — having access to resources such as teacher assistants, school counselors, updated textbooks, technology, and more. All of these are precious resources and opportunities that should be readily available to every student in America. And yet, they remain in short supply.
When we think about resource inequities, we generally imagine a school building with crumbling walls or peeling paint. Nearly one-third of public schools that serve low-income students are likely to be in fair to poor condition. Of course, dilapidated classrooms or poor plumbing are obviously unacceptable. Beyond facilities, however, there are resource inequities that are often less visible, but just as important. Research shows that resources like access to great teaching, academic rigor, personalized time and attention, and quality instructional materials are all essential for students.
After working in two different schools in New York City, I know firsthand the impact that resources — or lack thereof — can have on a student’s education and well-being. From the outside, the schools were virtually identical, but stepping through those doors was like stepping into two entirely different worlds.
Hidden Resource: Personalized Time and Attention
My students in East Harlem, a traditionally Latino neighborhood, came from mostly low-income families, and almost one-third of students identified as needing special services. Unfortunately, the school was unequipped to provide these supports. With only three Special Education teachers on-site to serve at least 60 students requiring services, and classes with only one full-time teacher to instruct almost 30 students, there were no structures in place to support differentiation in classrooms. Many of the students I worked with afterschool were behind in both reading and math. I had sixth graders who read on a second-grade level, and some students struggled with basic addition and subtraction. My students needed and deserved personalized time and attention so that they could excel.
Just across the East River, a school in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, students benefited from those targeted supports and practices in every classroom. Though fewer students were identified for special services, students had access to a team of SPED-certified professionals (approximately 1:12 ratio) to work with them in groups or one-to-one. There were also two full-time teachers for every class of 30 students, with classwork and assignments scaffolded to meet individual student needs. This rich structure of personalized time and attention is one that should be afforded to all students, and especially to those who need it the most. Unfortunately, it is not.
Hidden Resource: Instructional Materials
From student textbooks, to classroom libraries, and other school supplies, inequities can run rampant. In East Harlem, I regularly saw students sharing textbooks in classrooms, usually in groups of three or four. But in Brooklyn, the school provided new and updated books for every student at the start of the school year, maintained well-kept lending libraries in every classroom, and plentiful teacher supply closets. In Bed Stuy, students and teachers always had what they needed for a productive school day. Meanwhile, a new analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 94 percent of all U.S. teachers spend their own money on school supplies — on average of $480 a year for classroom supplies such as books, pencils, and erasers. I often used my own funds to purchase packs of pencils for my students, and that was the norm. Because the majority of our students came from low-income families, we felt compelled to bridge the gap to ensure our students had what they needed. How can we provide an equitable education to all students, when the materials themselves are inequitably distributed?
“Equal” isn’t the same as “equitable”
High-needs schools, like the one in East Harlem, should have more resources than other schools to reflect the higher needs of the students, not fewer. Equal funding for unequal need is unfair, plain and simple. But in America, higher need schools get substantially less funding per pupil than other schools, as our latest Funding Gaps report shows. Schools that have greater fiscal resources are better equipped to provide intensive tutoring and interventions to students, hire non-novice teachers, and invest in technology, new curricula, or teaching supplies.
Given the resource inequities I saw between the school in East Harlem and the school in Brooklyn, I was not surprised to discover marked differences in the amount of funding for each school. According to data from the 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection, the per-pupil expenditures for personnel salary and non-personnel expenses were twice as much in my Bed Stuy school than in my East Harlem school. This is a huge and troubling inequity — one school serving a substantially higher concentration of students living in poverty and students with disabilities is getting substantially fewer dollars per student than another school across the river in the same school district.
When it comes to resource equity, “equitable access” should include a broad range of resources. Inequities related to personalized time and attention, instructional materials, and per-pupil funding make a difference in the lives of students. And it’s low-income students and students of color, like my Black and Latino students in NYC, who bear the brunt of these inequities. As teachers continue to walk out, and advocates continue to shed light on the dimensions of inequality in our schools today, policymakers must take action to ensure that resources reach the students who need them the most.