Think and "act" locally: Pressing school boards to erase opportunity gaps

By Edwin C. Darden, Director of Education Law and Policy, Appleseed

Why do schools in high-poverty neighborhoods have fewer textbooks, foreign language offerings, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, and smaller libraries than schools in middle-class neighborhoods? Why do wealthier kids have teachers and principals with more credentials, experience and talent? And more importantly, how do we make change happen so all students can proceed from the same starting line?

Those were the questions, along with good answers, explored during a recent Appleseed convening. The event, live in New York City and simulcast to Chicago,   examined how school board members and districts make decisions about allocating scarce resources.

Instead of focusing on dollars alone, we highlighted a range of learning-related education resources (such as advanced courses and building conditions) that contribute to opportunity – or lack thereof. We explored ways to press these local decision-makers for action to ensure that impoverished students have the same educational opportunities as their peers across town. The National School Boards Association is embracing the idea and was present at the convening.

Thanks to the generosity of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and Dewey & LeBoeuf, we assembled a dynamic group of leaders from organizations devoted to parental empowerment, school excellence, community organizing, civil rights and pro bono service. 

Among this diverse group of leaders, there was broad consensus that resources are not – but should be – distributed equitably between middle-class and high-poverty schools in the same school district. The group also agreed that differing student outcomes are not the inevitable result of poverty: Schools can provide an education that either accelerates learning or hinders it.  In other words, change is not only necessary, it is also possible. Appleseed has developed an assessment tool that helps expose inequities. Called the Resource Equity Assessment Document (READ), the tool will be distributed to community partners and school boards to spur action.

For change to occur, however, community members must actively engage school boards to urge them to erase the opportunity gap. One strategy is for school boards to adopt resource equity policies that hold them accountable when resources are unfairly distributed.

When determining how to allocate resources, school boards often follow past patterns, particularly when parents in middle-class neighborhoods are vocal and insistent for their schools. This creates a vicious cycle for under-served schools and communities, one which community groups must address with a variety of strategies.

Other key strategies? Gather data to help make the case for change, as New York Appleseed is doing in that city’s public schools. And provide examples of successful programs that help impoverished students, such as Chicago’s community-based schools, which not only deliver K-12 education, but also serve as resources for parents and neighborhoods.

When armed with data that makes the case for change, community organizations can help school boards reset the balance between impoverished and better-off students. In the end, decision-makers must be held accountable to distribute resources equitably, so that we erase – not merely narrow – the opportunity gap.