Inequality in Education

Throughout all of my posts about education, ranging from the teacher shortage to charter schools, the real topic has always been inequality—there is an inherent difference in the quality of education children receive, and that charter schools and the teacher shortage perpetuate this inequality.


Looking back at what I’ve written about the teacher shortage, the real problem is not only that teachers are in short supply because they are underpaid and under appreciated, but also that good teachers are leaving the schools that need them the most.  These schools in need have students who face the challenges of poverty—parents who are too busy working multiple jobs to be able to read with their children, or help with their homework, as opposed to schools with affluent families that don’t have these issues.  As one can imagine, these disadvantaged students can pose more of a challenge for teachers, and in a profession where the pay and respect are both low, many teachers will choose to find jobs in schools whose students are less disadvantaged.  These districts also pay better, because school funding is based in part upon local property tax levels, so districts in more affluent areas will have more funding and less challenging students than districts with students of low socioeconomic status.  This funding pattern will drive good teachers to the areas where they get paid more, leaving the poorer students to have poor quality teachers.  These students will have less of an opportunity for quality employment due to their lower quality education, when compared to students from affluent areas, further contributing to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

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This pattern of inequality is echoed once again in charter schools, which, despite not performing any better than traditional public schools, market themselves better, and so have grown in popularity.  These schools serve as a magnet for those parents and teachers disillusioned with the problems of traditional public schools—but not every teacher or family has that opportunity.  The fact is that when students leave traditional public schools for charter schools, they take their public tax dollars with them, and that does nothing to help the school they’ve abandoned, in fact it makes the school worse.  Those without the opportunity to leave, be they the less skilled teachers or the students with behavioral problems, stay in the traditional public schools, bringing already falling testing averages down, causing more people to leave, and the cycle repeats, once again widening the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

Government is intended to break these cycles, and quality public education is a part of that.  But what good is a quality education that excludes those who need it the most?  How can we tolerate a system that will inevitably stratify people into the plebeians who went to traditional public school, and those who were able to escape and take the charter option?  How can any  great teacher justify staying in a district that pays ten to thirty thousand dollars less than a neighboring, affluent district?  This cycle needs to be broken.


Is a Private Model of Public Education Worth Pursuing?

I believe that although charter schools have some valuable ideas, they are not the right way to go about reforming our education system.


The private model of education involves allowing success and failure.  If a traditional public school fails, it it will be called a “program improvement” school, and given additional support so that it can overcome the areas where it falls short.  Charter schools are different in that, while they consume funding from the same source as traditional public schools, their failure is not treated the same way.  If they fail, a new charter will vie for its funding and location, and take over the “business” of education.  This new school will have, perhaps, a different model or way of doing things that may be more successful, or it may put a different emphasis on a subject (e.g. become a school for science and math).  Some people love this idea, and I’ll grant you, it does have some value.

The true value in charter schools is that traditional public schools can learn from them, see where they succeed and where they fail, and choose to follow accordingly.  There can be several of these “experiments” going on simultaneously, and it may seem like a great way to explore new possibilities in the education system.  These charters are given less oversight, which allows the teachers to focus more on actually teaching than prepping their students for assessment after assessment.  Some teachers really like this, despite the lower pay scale they receive compared to traditional public schools.

I feel like the downsides, however, outweigh the gains.  Firstly, according to a CREDO-Stanford study, charter schools don’t really do any better at educating students in English or math than do traditional public schools.  The study, in fact, says that some more affluent children do worse, while some less well off children do better (but not by much).  The fact that charter schools can kick out children easier than traditional public schools, however, throws shade onto the fact that some poorer students do better, because what it really means is that the poor students who still remain tend to do better.  This is pretty easy to do when you kick out all the poor kids with discipline problems or learning disabilities, but those are also the students who need the most help.


And what if a charter school does have a successful model?  Competitive parents who want the best for their children will want to take them from traditional public schools and put them in the hot, new charter in the area.  These students on average do well wherever they are, but when they aren’t in traditional public schools, the testing average of that school goes down, it develops a stigma of being a “bad school,” and even more affluent families will tend to avoid it.  The same thing goes for teachers who don’t want to work at a bad school full of students who couldn’t cut it at the local charter.  What happens here is polarization, where charter schools can be treated like one end of a magnet that draws all the “good” (read affluent)  kids in (rejecting or spitting out the “bad” (poor) ones), while the other side of the magnet is the traditional public school, that is forced to take the remainder.  This not only diminishes the quality of traditional public schools, while simultaneously lowering their funding, it perpetuates a class based system where the affluent families get the “good” schools and the poor families get the “bad” ones.  This is the exact opposite of the purpose of public education, which is supposed to be “the great equalizer.”

Although charter schools have their merits in advancing innovative educational practices at a more rapid pace, the costs are high, the benefits are low, and it simply isn’t worth sacrificing an egalitarian institution upon the altar of competition.

Charter Schools are the Solution to Problems in Education

Traditional public schools are failing children nationwide due to the burdens that have been placed upon them, ranging from overcrowded classrooms to teachers who have gotten tenure and stopped working as hard.  Proponents see charter schools as the saving grace of education that can allow these structural problems to be solved, not from simply doing the same things better, but from trying something new.  

A New York Times article sums up the purpose of charter schools, saying that “When first conceived 20 years ago, charter schools — which are publicly financed but independently operated — offered two distinct promises: to serve as an escape hatch for children in failing schools, and to be incubators of innovation that, through market forces, would invigorate neighborhood schools.”  In the following post, I will attempt to highlight these two appealing goals of charter schools.

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According to a recent U.S. News & World Report, charters “tend to cater to a largely minority and disadvantaged student population, particularly in inner cities.”  The Stanford based CREDO study also makes note of this when it says “The results point to large strides in some locations and with some of our most needy students. Charters serving minority students in poverty, students in poverty and English language learners are posting stronger results both against their 2009 record and against their current TPS counterparts in closing the learning gap for these students.”  However charter schools are doing this—whether through true innovation or by allowing teachers the time to focus on students instead of prepping for tests—charter schools deliver on their promise to allow a worthwhile alternative to failing public schools.

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Picture above shows Charter school growth in Los Angeles is predominately catered to lower economic groups.

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, traditional public schools have been suffering from a loss of qualified credentialed teachers.  Education scholars believe that a qualified teacher will have the ability to differentiate instruction for students that may be having a harder time, but the bureaucratic nature of traditional public schools pushes these teachers away while the charter system draws them in.  The associate director of the undergraduate teacher-education program at Harvard says in a letter to the editor of the New York Times that “Researchers have shown that the shortage of qualified teachers has as much to do with retention as with recruitment. Too often, bright new teachers encounter schools with a toxic professional culture. They find few opportunities to observe or collaborate with colleagues; they are assigned the largest classes, limiting chances to build meaningful relationships with students; and if they are given curriculum support, it is often scripted lessons, which undermine intellectual curiosity.  Charters offer the potential of a blank slate on which to build an environment that nurtures learning for teachers and students. When they do this right, they should be a lever of school reform.” So not only do charter schools provide an alternative to students who would otherwise be forced to go to failing traditional public schools, they also serve as an alternative that allows teachers to do the same.

A  National Study of Charter Schools report about the impact of charter schools on local traditional public schools’ policy said that”Most districts implemented new educational programs, made changes in educational structures in district schools, and/or created new schools with programs that were similar to those in the local charter schools.”  This is possibly the best feature of charter schools—their success is something traditional public schools can mimic and replicate, and these several different education policy “experiments” being conducted in parallel allow for public schools to adapt quickly and with certainty.  With charter schools leading the way, traditional public schools now have a mechanism to evolve past their shortcomings, benefitting the public education system overall.

Charter schools don’t do everything right, but that isn’t their purpose.  The purpose is to try something new and innovative, and to see how this affects educational outcomes so that traditional public schools can adopt their practices.  Parents and teachers alike find this promise hopeful, and charter school growth around the nation is evidence of that.

Arguments Against Charter Schools

While some claim that charter schools will be the saving grace of the education system, many claim that they are ineffectual, and they end up taking funding away from traditional public schools. Teachers deplore their presence, which offers lower pay and no union, and charter schools seek to further  widen the gap between those that have, and those who don’t.

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Chart shows declining positive impact of charter schools through time.

Researchers have found that, despite the apparent allure of charter schools, their performance is lackluster at best.  According to a Stanford supported study, there was no significant difference in student performance in math or reading between charter schools and traditional public schools, and in some cases, performance went down, especially as time went on.  So why are these schools growing so rapidly?

Supporters of charter schools point to their innovative nature as evidence that better than traditional public schools, but that myth is dispelled when the data is actually looked at.  Barack Obama spoke about a charter school in his 2013 State of the Union speech, stating “At schools like P-TECH in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering. We need to give every American student opportunities like this.”  This school sounds like a great idea to many, and this kind of positive attention gave IBM the confidence to continue funding for the group despite there not yet being any results—these schools now exist across the nation.  Reality, however, was recently brought to light by NPR when they said “In fall 2014, P-TECH told NPR, 21 percent of grades earned by its students in college courses were D’s and F’s.”  This school’s failure should serve as a warning that private industry does not necessarily know what is best for education, and that education policy is something which should be approached with care and caution, not treated as a bold experiment on the youth.

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Many teachers don’t like the fact that not only are charter schools allowed to use the public’s money with very little oversight, they can use this money to pay their teachers less than traditional public schools.  Often times, charter schools offer teachers what is known as “performance pay.”  According to a Center for American Progress study, charter schools use more performance pay than any other school type.  Some schools use a pay formula that involves paying teachers based on the school’s performance, which gives teachers incentive to weed out “bad students,” making not only their job easier, but their pay increase.  These students, which include students with learning disabilities and english language learners, get to go to the public schools, depreciating their value.

Many hold negative views about charter schools that trump their few mild successes, but no aspect is viewed more negatively than the hypocrisy that allows charter schools to take public funds, but be as selective about their students as private schools.  A Washington Post article highlights this issue by saying “Selective admissions in charters — which aren’t supposed to have them — is one big part of a growing narrative about public schools that critics say show that they act more like private schools, albeit with public dollars.”  These schools favor English speakers, do not have the facilities to serve students with special needs, and expel students with discipline problems more often than traditional public schools.  More often than not, students with discipline problems, or those who do not perform as well in school, tend to be students of color, or poorer students whose parents work multiple jobs and have little time to reinforce good study habits at home.

The reality of charter schools is that they perpetuate a stratification of the quality of education by kicking out the students who are in need of the most help, leaving them to the traditional public system, which has also lost good teachers and funding to the charter school system.  The public education system exists to close the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged people, but with charter schools, this is no longer a possibility.

Charter Schools or Public Schools—Which Model to Choose?

Many people believe there are major problems with our education system, and these problems are contributing to the teacher shortage.  I’ve spoken about teacher pay and teacher respect being major reasons why teachers are leaving the profession and why students are not pursuing teaching as a career, but many believe that these problems are merely a symptom of the underlying, systemic problem: that our education system itself needs a dramatic overhaul.

People ranging from parents to lawmakers believe that charter schools are the answer to the systemic problems in education, but those that fear this shift toward a private model of education argue that supporting charter schools comes at the detriment of traditional public schools.

Some people like charter schools because they lack the chains that hold back traditional public schools.  A recent opinion piece from the Seattle Times says that it’s time to embrace charter schools, stating that they demonstrate “what’s possible when schools are freed from certain rules and regulations in exchange for being held accountable for student outcomes.”  These schools have been allowed the space to practice innovative educational policies, which are unlikely to take root in the rigid, prescribed structure of traditional public schools.

Charter schools are growing because many people find their specialization and smaller bureaucracy liberating and more appealing than traditional public schools.  More and more schools are converting to charter schools, and a larger percentage of students are being enrolled in them.  A recent San Jose Mercury News article stated that in 2015, “Nationwide, the number of charters rose 7.3 percent.  There were 436 new schools and 288,000 students added, for a total of 6,440 schools educating more than 2.5 million students.”  The growing numbers only serve to bolster the claim of charter school supporters that the private model of education is better than traditional schools—that is to say that growth, in their minds, equates to a sign of success.

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According to a Poll from Education Next, an education policy analyst group, teachers are actually most opposed to charter schools of any other group interviewed.  This isn’t all that surprising, as charter schools represent the private model—one that doesn’t support teachers’ unions.  Teachers are also quick to point out that charter schools offer less pay than traditional public schools, or that charters promote a performance based pay system, and some would say that this is actually an appealing aspect of charter schools, because many people are paid this way, and why should teachers be any different?  Those with more egalitarian motives counter that argument by saying that such a competitive environment will result in a stratified education system, where the best teachers go to the schools that can pay the most, which due to schools being funded in part by local property taxes, means that the wealthy benefit while the poor do not.

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One question that puts a damper on people’s appreciation of charter schools is their funding source.  Charter schools draw from the same source as traditional public schools, meaning that as charter schools grow to use up more of that funding, traditional public schools are left with less funding.  People don’t like this, and according to a PDK/Gallup poll, 65% of Americans say they would oppose charter schools in their area if it meant reducing the amount of funds available to regular public schools.  Since charters draw from the same funding as traditional schools, but their competitive model also tends to draw in the talented teachers who have become disenfranchised by the bureaucracy, its easy to see that traditional schools will suffer when a charter school is established in the area.

Charter schools represent a privatization, and some good comes with that privatization along with some bad.  But the question is: does the good outweigh the bad?  Quality education for students is at stake, but it may mean sacrificing things like teacher pay, which could lower the quality of education students receive in the long run.

How Charter Schools Affect The Teacher Shortage

Charter Schools are in the unique position of being “publicly funded but can be privately operated.”  This takes two of the biggest advantages of public and private education and merges them together, creating a system that traditional public schools aren’t able to compete with.  The purpose of this post will be to explain how this merger of advantages creates an imbalance that further contributes to the teacher shortage.

Charter Schools address some of the causes of the teacher shortage, namely the lack of respect and freedom for teachers to practice their craft—problems that aren’t easy for traditional schools to fix.  According to the San Diego Tribune, “Changing trends that favor charter schools reflect today’s more consumer-oriented parents, who want choices beyond the neighborhood school or the district magnet program.”  Teachers take advantage of this benefit as well,  seeing Charter Schools with philosophies that more match their individual style as a welcome alternative to traditional public schools, but the caveat here is that qualified teachers will leave the traditional schools in favor of their preferred Charter.

Discovery Charter School in Campbell, California presents a specific example of this alternative.  From their home page, “Discovery asks families to make a commitment to the Discovery community and their child to volunteer in the school on a regular basis.”  Schools that require parent assistance in class are very appealing to teachers as well as to those parents that are able to help in their children’s classroom, but this is very difficult for parents who work full time, and nearly impossible for poorer parents who have to work multiple jobs in order to afford living in the area.  Parents that can’t manage to meet this requirement, or any number of other requirements that Charter Schools impose must take their children to traditional public schools.  Charters are also in the unique position of being able to deny enrollment to children for any number of reasons, and a recent UCLA study has found that:

“More than 500 charter schools suspended black students at a rate that was at least 10 percentage points higher than the rate for white students. And moreover, 1,093 charter schools suspended students with disabilities at a rate that was 10 or more percentage points higher than for students without disabilities.  The most alarming finding, the research points out, is that 235 charter schools suspended more than 50 percent of their enrolled students with disabilities.”

The ability to pull in the best students and the best teachers is obviously very appealing to both teachers and parents, but it drives teachers away from traditional public schools by making them the dumping ground for the poor, the disabled, those of color, and non-English speakers.Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 8.28.32 AM.png

When a Charter School is established in an area, it draws funding away from that area’s other public schools.  From the LA Times, “Charters’ rapid growth — to about 101,000 students in L.A. — is responsible for about half of a precipitous drop in district enrollment and the funding that comes with it.”  The emergence of charter schools means a drop in funding for local schools in districts, which means that the districts have to make do with less—leading to larger class sizes, less funding for special education, and no room for wage teacher wage growth.  This is not an ideal state for teachers to be in, and in their frustration, they either flee to the alternative schools, or leave teaching altogether.

Charter Schools seem to be an appealing alternative, but the problem is their appeal.  They contribute to the teacher shortage by using the freedom of a private model, which draws talented teachers away from traditional public schools, thereby weakening them.

What are the Solutions to the Teacher Shortage Problem?

One of my last posts was dedicated to some of the more prominent causes of the teacher shortage, and now that the causes are understood, this post is dedicated to some of the solutions that have been put forth by lawmakers towards addressing this problem.

Lawmakers are attempting to curtail the problem of low teacher recruitment by offering financial incentives.  These include California Senate Bill 62, which seeks to aid teachers with “financial assistance to encourage them to complete postsecondary education programs leading to teaching credentials.” This aid would help qualifying teachers to pay their student debt, an factor which has been discouraging people from entering the profession.

School districts are also doing their part to lower the financial burden on teachers by providing affordable housing for their teachers.  One San Francisco school district official is quoted as saying that funding “has been earmarked for construction of up to 100 new apartments on surplus land owned by the San Francisco Unified School District. The units would be rented at below-market rates to the district’s 3,500 teachers and 1,600 classroom aides, who also would be eligible for new rental housing allowances and home down payment loans aimed at reducing living costs for another 300 educators.”  This is especially necessary since the cost of living in the San Francisco area is among the highest in the nation.  School districts realize that they need to take drastic measures in order to assure that the quality of their schools remains intact, and programs like this not only serve to stop the hemorrhaging of qualified teachers, they serve as attractors to young people who are potential teachers.

Although teaching is still not a lucrative profession, wages for teachers are back on the rise from their recession era lows. An article from the Fresno Bee states that “from 2009 to 2013, in the midst of government cutbacks and furloughs tied to the recession, average, inflation-adjusted teacher pay in California fell by about 5 percent. It rose slightly during the 2014 school year, and now sits about where it was in 2009.”  This is a good sign, although pay may be rising significantly in some districts, but not in others, because the same article goes on to say that “five school districts, most in the Bay Area, pay their teachers, on average, more than $100,000 – likely still not enough to afford to purchase a home in their communities. At least 10 school districts in rural areas pay their teachers, on average, less than $45,000 annually.”  This may have something to do with how education is funded, because a large chunk of the funding comes from local property taxes, which means that more affluent areas are likely to have the money to pay their teachers more, while poorer areas nearby will struggle to match those wages.

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School districts and lawmakers are able to address the financial problems faced in the education system, but the other problems tend to be a little more complicated.  An article from the Desert Sun quotes one Southern California Teachers’ Association President as saying “Good salary, health benefits, the workload- that all adds up to it- but if you were to treat teachers with respect, allow them to collaborate, leave them alone in their classroom to do what they love, they would do it for nothing.”  The public model of education may not be able to address these fundamental problems of respect and freedom in the teaching profession.  But what other models exist that can address these problems? This will be explored next when we talk about Charter Schools.

What are the Causes of the Teacher Shortage?

As we’ve been discussing, teachers are in short supply.  Why is this happening? This post will endeavor to enumerate the causes for the teacher shortage.

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 11.50.39 AM.pngA major contributing factor to the teacher shortage is the fact that those entering the teaching profession don’t get paid as well as other graduates out of college.  According to the National Education Association, starting salary for a teacher in California is $41,131, and this amount is in the top ten nationwide.  The National Association of Colleges and Employers, a group that tracks employment trends of college graduates, says that starting salaries  for the Class of 2014 were at $48,707.  Potential teachers pay attention to what kind of salaries they’ll be getting, and these low numbers deter them from entering teaching programs.Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 11.53.46 AM.png

In the United States, teachers don’t get enough respect.  According to a 2013 Varkey Foundation survey, which asks citizens of a country to rank teachers against other professions and then normalizes the data on an interval level from 1-100 (think of this as a likability scale), the United States gives its teachers a 38.4.  In the same report, a plurality of respondents in the United States said they thought of teachers as being closest to librarians (as opposed to doctors, nurses, social workers, or politicians).  When educators are compared to a profession that has been more or less obsolete for the past twenty years, I think this is indicative of the lack of respect that they feel.  When people consider a career, they may remember the old adage, “those that can’t do, teach,” and so those that want to be thought of as successes attempt to go into a different profession.  This phrase not only underscores the lack of respect felt by teachers, but also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where the profession is populated by those who couldn’t do anything else.

Teaching is becoming an increasingly stressful profession full of uncertainty.  After the 2008 economic recession, teachers were getting pink slips every year, meaning that they didn’t know if they’d be hired back on to work the following year.  According to the New York Times, “educators say that during the recession and its aftermath prospective teachers became wary of accumulating debt or training for jobs that might not exist.”  This uncertainty lead to teachers leaving the profession, and potential teachers going elsewhere for employment.

Teachers don’t feel like they’re given the time to teach.  Standardized testing has become the focus of education, because evaluations determine the quality of education that children are receiving.  This is causing a backlash that the National education Association says is causing teachers to leave the profession.  The article says that “Fifty-two percent of teachers surveyed said they spend too much time on testing and test prep. The average teacher now reports spending about 30 percent of their work time on testing-related tasks” and “According to the NEA survey, a majority of teachers reported feeling considerable pressure to improve test scores. 72 percent replied that they felt “moderate” or “extreme” pressure from both school and district administrators.”

How can these problems be addressed?  What are the solutions?

Why You Should Care About The Teacher Shortage

There is a teacher shortage in the United States, and it’s leading to a decline in the quality of education students are receiving, as well as putting burdens on those who work with children.  This is an issue that perpetuates itself, and if left unchecked, will have rippling impacts throughout the economy.

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School districts are having significant difficulties handling this situation, leading them to hire long-term substitutes to fill in where full-time, credentialed teachers cannot be found.  According to a San Francisco Chronicle article from the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year,



“A growing teacher shortage has left district officials across the region and the state scrambling to fill classrooms, with critical shortages in science, math, special education and bilingual education. Many parents will find a substitute teacher, or even a credentialed central office staffer, leading their children’s classes on the first day.”

This issue is ongoing, and by February of 2016, the repercussions have become apparent.  From the Sacramento Bee, “With fewer fully credentialed teachers available to take over classrooms, the number of teachers hired on substandard permits and credentials has nearly doubled.” These provisional and short-term permits grant a person the ability to teach in a classroom for a maximum of sixty days before they must be re-assigned to another classroom, and they often lack the training to teach the subject to which they are assigned.  This leads to a substandard quality of education for young students, who not only have to deal with growing class sizes due to the lack of teachers, but whom will only just have become comfortable with a teacher before it’s time for that teacher to be replaced with yet another unqualified instructor.

The lack of qualified teachers echoes throughout school districts, where Human Resource departments scramble to fill open special education positions, a case especially prominent in special education, where the demand for qualified special education teachers far exceeds the supply. According to a report by the Learning Policy Institute, “districts estimated their hiring needs at roughly 4,500 special education teachers in 2014–15, only about 2,200 fully prepared new special education teachers emerged from California’s universities in that year.”  This puts pressure on those who work in education, who are now working with people who have insufficient knowledge of special educational codes and laws, legal timelines, and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).  This leads to parents becoming upset that their children’s needs aren’t being met, which leads to costly lawsuits, further preventing districts from hiring the qualified individuals needed to pull them out of the quagmire that is the current situation in public education.

There are real economic impacts to children receiving sub-par education, from everything such as a loss in future revenue for individual students, to a loss in yearly GDP on the order of trillions of dollars.  The term economic death spiral may sound  hyperbolic, but it’s true—the continued loss of teachers and qualified school professionals makes what was a bad situation even worse, as parents begin to seek alternatives such as private, magnet, and charter schools (an issue I plan on going into in further detail in a later post).  This leaves public schools to those who cannot afford the alternative, creating a further disparity between those who have and those who don’t, something that education, “the great equalizer,” is supposed to prevent.  This cycle needs to be broken, but the question is, how to be do that?  In order to answer that, we must first examine the causes of this issue.