Column: Evening the playing fields

By Jenette Sturges

Studies released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development last week indicate a startling trend: the U.S. is slipping behind its competitors in scholastic achievement. Where we were once first in the world, we now rank eighth, behind countries such as South Korea and Belgium.

It’s easy to blame it on higher powers. We live under a government willing to go into massive debt for war efforts but insist on keeping the federal and state education budgets balanced. Then again, the math still doesn’t work out. The United States spends an average of approximately $11,334 per student annually, surpassed only by Switzerland.

Presuming that there is no incredible deficiency with our teachers on the whole, and that terrorists aren’t attacking our water supplies with pollutants aimed at making our children dumber, there seems to be no obvious reason for the disparity.

The problem here is the word “average.” We spend an “average” of eleven grand a year on each student, which means that we spend more than eleven grand on some of our students and far less than that on others.

This is readily apparent on our campus, as it is in Champaign and Urbana, and across the country. Locally, residents apply and send their children to University High instead of those Urbana or Champaign public schools receiving far less funding.

For the suburban-bred student body here, I can compare my high school that had one gym and one odd-smelling fieldhouse to others in our conference boasting seven gyms and two pools. And I know that, in comparison to what students dealt with in Chicago schools, or even on the east side of my own town, I had the far better deal.

The inequity in our schools is atrocious and should be considered a crime against students of low-income families. Children in low-income communities are seven times less likely to graduate from college than children in high-income areas, and by the fourth grade are three grade levels behind their peers in math and reading. In short, it isn’t those schools receiving eleven thousand dollars a year per student that are failing standardized tests, creating more drop-outs, and causing us to slip behind other nations. It is those schools serving impoverished areas with no resources and no local tax dollars.

A friend asked me once if I thought it would be right to take away some of the amenities of her high school to make it equal to my school. While this, admittedly, does sound fair and viable, it is not right. I believe we should be making an effort to bring low-income schools up to par with well-funded schools. Perhaps if schools received money from federal funds instead of local and state funds, a socialist system of equality would prevail and everyone might have the same number of gyms and pools. Though I would like to see Chicago schools receive as much funding as Naperville schools, that is obviously wishful thinking as parents prefer to see their tax dollars funneled into their own child’s education. (Personally, these people seem to be missing the idea of a tax for the common welfare, but that’s just me.)

Our only other alternative, then, is to work within the poor schools and their dismal budgets. Highly motivated teachers are a good way to go about this. For example, Teach For America, an Americorps program, trains new graduates to commit to two years in a low-income classroom with specific math and reading goals to meet. And while it isn’t the perfect solution to closing the gap between rich and poor students, something only socialism has a shot at fixing, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed college grads with lots of save-the-world ambitions are our best bet with our given funding issues (or at any rate, they are far superior to my eighth grade Social Studies instructor who often fell asleep in class).

The only way the U.S. is going to climb back to number one, in education and elsewhere, without opening pocketbooks is through the work of average citizens with big dreams.

Jenette Sturges is a junior in LAS. Her column normally appears every Tuesday; Eric Naing’s column will appear Tuesday for this week only. She can be reached at [email protected]