The educational apartheid in our schools

School bus

Story highlights

  • Jeff Yang: Individuals having to fill school funding gaps
  • Public schools an increasingly patchwork system, author says

Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including Public Radio International's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" and editor of the graphic novel anthologies "Secret Identities" and "Shattered." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The school year has officially begun, and across the nation, kids are resentfully filing into classrooms to begin the process of relearning everything they forgot over the summer. For more and more parents, however, the return to school is a harsh reminder of our society's wildly misplaced priorities.

In preparation for my younger son's first day in a Los Angeles public elementary school, I fixed him a sandwich and bagged a banana and a few tubes of yogurt, shook out the year-old detritus from his backpack, and stocked it with the requisite number of notebooks, erasers, pencils and markers. I then flipped over the sheet detailing the school supplies he was expected to bring, and realized in horror that I'd only purchased his personal educational necessities: On the reverse of the page was a much longer list covering what he -- and every other child in his school -- was expected to purchase for his classroom. Reams of white paper. Multicolored pencil and crayon sets. Dry-erase board markers. Paper clips and rubber bands. If the list had included individual cinder blocks and buckets of cement (in order to build the actual school, naturally!) I wouldn't have been surprised. Back to the office superstore I drove.
Jeff Yang
When I attended the school's "booster club" meeting the next day, the Parent Association head's opening address served as an explanation. "Welcome, incoming parents!" she said brightly. "The LAUSD provides us with this building, the teachers, and electricity for the lights. The budget for everything else your kids will need for the entire year comes from our fundraising efforts. I'm not kidding: Everything."
    Arts, theater, music? Parent fundraising. Computer lab? Parent fundraising. Gym equipment and coaches? Parent fundraising, even though PE is a state requirement (presumably without our fundraising, the kids would be doing mass calisthenics to a recording in the courtyard, like prisoners).
    At the end of the orientation, the parents quickly lined up to volunteer for the dozens of different money-generating enterprises that parents have engineered to bridge the gap between the funds provided by government and the minimum requirements needed for our children to receive a quality education.
    But our situation is hardly unique. Across the city, the state and the country thousands of school districts face the same dismal predicament, many of them without the resources, human and financial, that our district enjoys.
    The worst thing about this school underfunding crisis is that it's a self-inflicted wound. In California, Proposition 13 reduced real estate taxes, which traditionally go to fund local education, to a hairline minimum, and then made it virtually impossible to raise them. The state has done little to make up the difference: The equivalent of just 3.3% of California's GDP goes to fund K-12 education, compared to the 4.2% of GDP spent on average by other states.
    It's been up to private individuals to fill the gaps in school funding across the U.S. -- parents like us, as well as philanthropists like Eli Broad, Bill Gates and, famously, Mark Zuckerberg, whose quixotic effort to turn around Newark's failing public school system is documented in Dale Russakoff's fascinating new book "The Prize." One thing these civic-minded donors have in common: A belief in real-world educational experiments, mostly in the form of charter schools, which have proliferated wildly over the past decade-and-a-half. In 2000, 1% of American students attended charter schools, which operate independently of local educational supervision and are in some cases for-profit ventures. As of 2013, that percentage had increased to 4.6%, with no end in sight.
    And that's a huge problem. Because money going toward charter schools is money that's not funding standard district schools -- and what was once a budgetary trickle has become a firehose, and is poised to turn into a flood, as a vicious cycle of defunding, degraded education and flight out of the system drives a ceaseless downward spiral.
    America's network of public schools were originally conceived of as providing not just a sound educational foundation for future generations -- regardless of their parents' socioeconomic status. Today's increasingly patchwork system, dependent on the whims of billionaires and the extracurricular efforts of parents to maintain, is stacking the deck, such that families with the will or wherewithal to invest in their kids' education create well-resourced schools that are magnets for other driven and deep-pocketed parents. The educationally rich get educationally richer; dysfunctional districts slide into potentially irrecoverable brokenness. And because these districts are disproportionately low-income -- and black and Hispanic -- the net outcome is gut-wrenching educational apartheid.
    We've spent a huge amount of time and attention recently arguing about racial disparities in college admissions, and the reason for this is understandable: No force is more effective in lifting people out of poverty than higher education. But it's easy to see that the racial disparities we see in access to top universities are directly related to disparities at the elementary and secondary level.
    Case in point: Our school district, densely packed with University of California -- Los Angeles graduate student housing, is full of parents who aren't wealthy, but are highly inclined to be proactive about education as students themselves, and raise funds with determined gusto. A few districts over are neighborhoods with a similar average income, but a very different demographic profile -- homes with single parents or two parents working long, hard hours just to keep above water. The schools in those neighborhoods are in dire straits, but any number of factors make it so these parents can't move, or can't afford to. The end result: Those who need education most receive the least and poorest.
    It's the exact opposite of what the great educational pioneer Horace Mann once decreed education to be: "The great equalizer, beyond all other devices of human origin; the balance wheel of the social machinery." And Americans, whether we can afford to send our kids to school with $200 bags of classroom supplies or not, deserve better.