Definition of equity
The word equity dates back to the 14th century, used as a term for justice or fairness. The term took on a legal connotation in Medieval England, where practitioners used Courts of Chancery to settle legal matters through non-traditional means, through the lens of fairness.
In education, equity as a philosophy has evolved to recognize that all students start and progress through education at different points, and may need different resources to receive an adequate education. Students facing particular social and systemic barriers, like poverty, may require more resources—free meals, for example—to succeed in school. Equity also recognizes that not all students learn the same way or respond to the same teaching strategies.
Equity and equality represent two different ideas in education. Equality dictates that students receive the same treatment and resources, with equal access to opportunities. Approaching education through the lens of equity, educators aim to meet students based on need.
A number of landmark court cases set the stage for the modern school equity discussion:
- Brown v. Board of Education: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment. This decision reversed precedent set by the court decades earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson, where justices had ruled that “separate but equal” segregation did not violate the constitution.
- San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez: In 1968, a group of parents sued Texas amid protests over inequitable resources for low-income, predominantly Latino schools. While a federal district court ruled that Texas’ system for funding schools was unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court found no constitutional violations in the system, which largely favored wealthy schools.
- Miliken v. Bradley: Milliken, in 1974, questioned who bore the responsibility for desegregating schools, two decades after the Brown decision. The case revolved around a plan to desegregate Detroit’s schools, which would have included white, suburban schools. Families in the predominantly white districts argued the courts couldn’t impose such a plan because it conflicted with local control. The Supreme Court sided with the suburban districts, limiting Detroit’s efforts to desegregate its public schools for decades to come.
- Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Title I: In 1965, the federal government took a much bigger role in education through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed into law by Lyndon Johnson. The law emphasized the importance of education for historically underserved student populations, creating Title I, which directed money to schools serving higher proportions of low-income students. About $16 billion went to Title I schools in 2021.Subsequent reauthorizations of ESEA include No Child Left Behind, signed by George W. Bush, and the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by Barack Obama.
- Title IX: Passed in 1972, Title IX prohibits gender discrimination in school programs and athletics.
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: IDEA, passed in 1975, guarantees all students with disabilities a free appropriate public education while sending funding for this purpose. Students under IDEA receive accommodations to ensure an adequate education, adhering to an equitable philosophy.
School finance is central in discussions over equity in education funding.
The bulk of money going to schools comes from state and local sources, and every state has its own system for funding schools. In 1951, South Carolina attempted to avoid desegregating schools by instituting a new sales tax to build schools for Black students, building 700 schools to try to prove students had access to “separate but equal” institutions.
Battles over funding equity often date back to debates over using property tax to fund schools.
Some states lean more on local property taxes than others, creating funding disparities between districts located in areas with high property wealth and districts in areas that aren’t property-wealthy. For example, in Illinois, NPR found a more than $18,000 difference in per-pupil spending in 2013 between two districts less than an hour away from one another. In 2017, Illinois reformed its funding formula in an effort to balance funding. Similar battles have played out over the past several decades dating back to the 1980s in other states, such as Oklahoma and Arizona.
But education leaders have said equalizing state aid is still a far cry from achieving equity in school funding. In Michigan, for example, lawmakers have incrementally stepped up funding to achieve equality among districts, but those advocating for a complete funding formula overhaul have said that high-need students, like English language learners, should be funded at higher levels, similar to the idea behind Title I funding.
Prevailing philosophy over how students should be taught – and what resources and representation matter in the classroom – has evolved for more than a century.
Starting in the early 1800s, Indigenous boarding schools funded by the federal government or through missionary organizations wrested tens of thousands of Native American students from their homes in forced assimilation programs aimed at erasing the culture of those students in the 19th and 20th century. In many of these schools, students could not speak their own languages.
Communities of color have staged uprisings over lack of representation in the classroom and attempts to erase or belittle culture.
In 1968, parents in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn wanted more control of local schools and more representation in the teaching force. While 95% of the students in the neighborhood were Black or Latino, two-thirds of public school teachers were white, reported The Nation. The neighborhood gained community control of its schools, electing a board, which eventually dismissed 18 white educators. Following the dismissals, a massive teacher strike erupted, with Black community activists and the teacher’s union at odds.
More recently, schools across the country have examined whitewashed versions of history included in textbooks and state standards.
Culturally responsive teaching focuses on connecting with students through their culture and background. Practices include adding texts by writers of color into English curricula, using examples in math class more tailored to a student’s life, and revising History lessons to include the perspectives of Black, Indigenous and other people of color.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities have long modeled these practices. Research out of HBCUs has shown the positive impact of culturally inclusive education early on in a student’s college career.