On Tuesday evening I watched as broadcast news programs and panel discussions on 24-hour cable news networks covered, analyzed and editorialized the current college admissions scandal. Measured by the hours dedicated to the topic, this scandal evoked strong reactions and caused viewers to turn on and tune in for the latest salacious details.
No doubt that involvement of television stars made the scandal sexier and more click worthy. Yet as I read reactions on social media, it is clear that people are disturbed by the idea that families of wealth and privilege violated the rules (or perhaps created an entirely different game) for college admissions. The fact that wealthy individuals bought access for their children through a series of corrupt and illegal actions seems an affront to a professed value of meritocracy — the notion that individuals achieve and attain based upon talent and skill. And the fact that the scheme successfully purchased access to such elite institutions seems to have made it all the more morally repulsive.
Yes, I find it disturbing. These are clearly illegal and repugnant acts. We should all be outraged. Yet I don’t find it surprising.
As an educator who has spent his career working in K-12 classrooms, schools and districts on behalf of improving learning experiences, increasing achievement, and shrinking opportunity gaps, I can tell you that privilege games the system in K-12, also. I’m not talking about violations of state and federal laws, but I am talking about ways that wealth and privilege can create an entirely different set of educational circumstances for children.
Let’s take as an example the relationship between home ownership and schools. Parents of school-aged children with the means to purchase a home regularly select communities with schools of strong reputation and rankings. And the more resources you possess to invest in a home, the more community and school district options you have from which to choose. Real estate brokers get this — and are quick to point out the quality of the schools that come with a given home. “This is a great community, and the school down the street has an international baccalaureate program.” “If you buy this house, there is a lovely playground and a well-regarded Montessori elementary school.” “The high school down the way has won the state tennis championship four years in a row.”
Moreover, towns defined by large percentages of single-family homes are often quick to uphold zoning ordinances that protect against multi-family homes, apartments and subsidized housing. Why? These housing options run the risk of lowering property values and changing the community they bought into. These options also run the “risk” of increasing access to the very schools that attracted home buyers in the first place.
Yet for many families, such choice is dramatically constrained. Often they don’t possess the resources to pick from among the top-ranked schools and districts. They can’t readily up and move to another town to create dramatically different educational opportunities.
This is but one —though perhaps one of the most significant— ways privilege bends the rules of elementary and secondary education to benefit children of means. Yet there are numerous others that I see on a regular basis.
Certain families have figured out how to work the system so that their child gets the “good teacher” in particular grade level. Some parents with access to elected officials at the local and state levels are able to bring about policies that directly benefit their children. Other families possess enough disposable income to purchase a myriad of enrichment experiences, from SAT tutors to private voice lessons to elite summer camps, all of which make it more likely their children will have better options after high school.
Let me be clear: I do not begrudge any parent or guardian who tries to provide a child the best life has to offer, at least as it is done in a legal and ethical way. I am also not arguing that buying a good home within a school district of your choice is the moral equivalent of the crimes Felicity Huffman is alleged to have committed. Of course it is not. Let’s just not pretend that a pure meritocracy of education exists. Student outcomes are not solely the byproduct of hard work and academic acumen, no matter how much we wish they were.
So as we continue following this higher education scandal and watch the events unfold like a TV criminal procedural, let’s save some bit of our outrage for a K-12 educational system where outcomes are highly correlated with the zip code of one’s birth and the wealth of one’s parents.
Richard Lemons is Executive Director of the Connecticut Center for School Change.
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