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When “Fairness” is No Longer Fair

When a girl was denied admittance to her school’s gifted program because her family’s income was too high, it exposed the inherent unfairness of certain policies designed to redress economic inequality in public school.

In February 2010, 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. Remarkably, her mother later learned that Hannah would have scored high enough to enter the 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.

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