Today I received some exciting news: I won the ACLU Washington State youth essay contest, so I’ll be going to the ACLU Membership Conference in Washington DC in June. Some people have been wondering if I could share the essay, so here it is!
The prompt was: What do you think is the most important civil liberties or civil rights issue your generation faces? Why? How will you work toward a solution?
note: this essay is copyrighted. If you see any plagiarizing, please notify me.
Upon taking a look into a typical high school located in the eastside suburbia outside of Seattle, one witnesses a wide selection of AP, IB and honors courses taken by the majority, guidance counselors that hold individual meetings to check up on the wellbeing of students, and thousands of dollars worth of textbooks piled in the back of each classroom. As one of these students roaming around said suburban high school, I find that both myself and the people around me often forget that we live in a bubble shielded from the realities of the education system.
The key issue that our public education system encounters currently is the drawing of district lines, which contributes to a subtle but significant form of de-facto segregation. The origins of this problem arose from the 1974 Milliken v. Bradley Supreme Court case, which ruled on a 5-4 decision that school districts were not required to desegregate unless proven that the district lines were purposefully drawn with racist intent. Therefore, although there could be integration actions such as forced busing within district lines, the way districts were separated could still contribute to socio-economic segregation–exactly what is happening in the status quo.
Although a century ago the drawing of district lines would have had less of an impact on educational opportunities, the 1950s-60s period of white flight changed this outcome. Due to the imbalance in demographics between urban centers and the suburbs, the way district lines were drawn allowed middle-class Caucasian students to attend schools together, leaving behind lower-class minorities in urban districts. Consequently, the worst high school in a neighboring suburbia could have a higher educational quality than the city’s best school.
You may ask, what are the factors that contribute to these educational differences? The first issue is the quality of the teachers. Because suburban residents tend to pay higher property tax, the districts have more funding to pay for highly qualified faculty with more experience or higher professional degrees. Additionally, this contributes to the number of advanced (honors, AP, and IB) courses and programs available, because teachers must be able to handle teaching rigorous classes, while districts need to pay for the curriculum material. Similarly, suburban school districts often have talented and gifted programs that further the achievement gap between socio-economic classes. Perhaps the most significant contributor to resource disparity is access to technology, such as online textbooks and laptops. While several wealthy districts provide free laptops or tablets, students from poorer districts are forced to use textbooks to complete homework, which takes up much more time and often contains outdated information. These factors make it nearly impossible for students in impoverished communities to compare academically to districts that are flooded with overabundance in funding.
When zooming out to the larger scale and magnitude, the achievement gap locks the lower-class, which are largely made up of minorities and marginalized communities, into a cycle of poverty. The capitalist mindset of our country favors individuals who are productive and contribute to the economy, which for students is measured through test scores and grades that supposedly provide a “preview” to their future success. Students who cannot show educational achievement are left behind by teachers and by society, instead locked into the school to prison pipeline, which blocks them from achieving the social mobility required to break racial inequality in the long run. Even though there are several current solutions working towards diminishing de-facto segregation such as affirmative action and the Fair Housing Act, none of these are fully effective in regards to the terminal goal. Instead, we must attack the root cause, starting from inequity at youth.
Although the final verdict for dissolving current district lines depends on legislators and the justice system, there are many methods for everyone to contribute to making the process more effective. Because most citizens are unaware of the issue’s implications, the first step I will take is spreading awareness. As someone who participates in competitive policy debate, one immediate action I can take is popularizing the argument in the debate space that the road to combat poverty starts at the institutional segregation of districts. Additionally, I run a blog that garners hundreds of views per month specifically dedicated to discussing social issues, which will enable me to bring more light to this specific civil rights topic.
On a more personal level, I am already involved in nonprofit organizations that help needy students gain access to the full high school experience, such as co-founding the Cinderella Project at my school for distributing free formal dresses. I will take this a step further by contributing to urban volunteer work such as Seattle Debate Coalition’s project, which teaches advocacy skills for lower-income students in the Seattle school district.
Finally, on the political scale, I may not be able to vote yet, however in the meantime I can endorse certain legislators and acts. This includes supporting state congressman who are determined to fight urban poverty and want to pour education funds to impoverished city schools. Furthermore, I will spread my dissent toward the ESSA and other accountability measures that punish students with low test scores instead of attacking the root cause to the achievement gap, as well as spread disagreement to school choice programs that take away resources from traditional systems and perpetuate white flight from urban districts. Promotion or opposition can be spread through publishing pamphlets and educational material that outline the benefits or consequences of these programs and acts.
Ultimately, the fight towards true equality will not be an easy one. American society was founded on centuries of institutional barriers and ingrained racism, which will likewise take decades to deconstruct. But now is not the time to give up. We are only halfway to our goal, only partially broken down the walls of oppression. As Martin Luther King said, and as former President Barack Obama echoed, “unity is the great need of the hour.” Only unity can tumble the invisible walls that divide our nation.