When “Fairness” is No Longer Fair
By Michael Kleen
November 23, 2010
In February of this year, Hannah Workman, a fifth grader and straight-A student in Florida’s Clay County School District, was denied entrance to her elementary school’s gifted program because she did not score high enough on the entrance exam. While that is unremarkable in and of itself, her mother later learned that Hannah would have scored high enough to enter the gifted program if her family earned less. The standards on the entrance exam, she discovered, were based on income level and English proficiency. Students who qualified for free or reduced lunch or who spoke limited English only had to score in the 90s to qualify, while other children needed to score at least 130.
Though seemingly a minor footnote in the story of America’s public schools, the testing policy of this Florida school district cuts to the core of the philosophical debate over the role of education raging among educators and policy makers. It reveals much about the changing definition of “fairness” and the problem with using publicly-funded education to redress social inequality.
Fairness used to mean that the same standard should be applied to everyone. Today, “fairness” has increasingly come to mean purging inequity by all available means. It doesn’t take someone with a college degree to recognize which of the two is really just, however. 11-year-old Hannah explained it succinctly enough to her local news station, WJXT in Jacksonville. “They should have one set score where it doesn’t matter how much money your family makes or if you have fare-reduced lunch, if you get that score, no matter what, you can get in,” she said.
The administrators of her school district disagree. Because there is a finite amount of resources available to the district’s gifted program, and middle and upper class parents have more resources available to spend on their own children’s education, “fairness” dictates that access to the gifted program be easier for students with low incomes. By lowering standards for those students, their income disparity will be offset.
Unlike the parents of these students, however, a public school district has no income of its own. It is funded by taxes, which are disproportionately paid by middle and upper class residents of that district. In a very real sense, publicly-funded education is already a redistribution of wealth, operating under the assumption that this investment will benefit society in the long run by creating a skilled workforce and a more intelligent and responsible citizenry. It is assumed that once given the opportunity to attend school, every child will be expected to perform up to the standards required by that school, regardless of their background.
What the policy of this Florida school district is saying, however, is that children of middle and upper class parents should have a more difficult time gaining access to the resources provided by their parent’s tax dollars. Moreover, resources that would otherwise have gone to motivated or intelligent students should instead go to less motivated and less intelligent students in the interest of “fairness.” It is placing a value on income over intellectual ability, and in the process, implying that children from low income homes cannot be expected to perform as well as other children.
Policies like this are a philosophical and systemic problem, not a political problem. Clay County is not an area with a high level of poverty, nor with a significant minority or foreign born population where such a policy might be justifiable, nor is it controlled by liberal Democrats. According to the 2000 census, 5.10 percent of families in Clay County were below the poverty line (far below the national average), and 87.44 percent of the population was white. It has given over 70 percent of its vote to Republican candidates in the last three presidential elections, and its 5-member school board is elected on a non-partisan basis. In a sense, Clay County is the least likely place where a philosophy of “redistribution for equity” should hold sway.
Despite the wishful thinking of school administrators, a policy that favors lower class children at the expense of middle and upper class children will not right social wrongs—it will only serve to have a deleterious effect on educational standards. It will demotivate gifted children from middle and upper class families, and will teach gifted children from low income families that they do not have to try as hard to succeed. One straight-A student in Florida’s Clay County has already learned this lesson the hard way.