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The Challenges of Equity in Public Education

Jordan Catapano

Equity in public education, in its ideal sense, refers to the principle that all students are afforded equal educational opportunities. As a guiding principle, equity sets a high standard for how students’ educational opportunities across the nation ought to be provided. In practice, however, nothing is ever that simple.

The term “Equity” is often confused with its cousin, “Equality,” when speaking about education. Equality refers to treating people the same under the law; equity, on the other hand, refers to giving people the treatment they need. While everyone may be considered equal under the law, individual needs vary person to person. Equity is the attempt to provide different treatments to suit different students’ needs in a fair manner.

Although the desire to provide equal “Educational opportunity” to all students is noble, there are challenges associated with the successful implementation of this ideal at the ground level. Consider some of these important distinctions that go into how schools, districts, and states provide equity in education.

Horizontal and Vertical Equity in Public Education

First, when comparing any two students, we can recognize that there is a great deal that they may have in common or in contrast with one another. Horizontal equity refers to the equal treatment of equals. In schools, the educational opportunities provided to two comparable individuals ought to be the same. So if two students both qualify for similar special education needs, those needs are provided for in an equal fashion. Or if two students score the same on a placement test, they would be placed in the same setting.

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Vertical equity, on the other hand, considers the equal treatment of unequals. This means that schools make sure that they provide Student A with the necessities for his educational needs, while Student B – who has different educational needs – is equally provided for. At the classroom level, teachers attempt to meet this need via differentiation, such as providing students who have different reading levels with different classroom texts intentionally meeting those diverse levels. Across a school or district, vertical equity is the attempt to provide each demographic subgroup with the materials and services needed by that group. This opens up challenges as districts try to be fair with opportunities and allocation, yet are providing different resources to sources to various individuals.

No two students are alike, which means that no single solution is “The Answer” for the complex array of students, needs, and resources a school will encounter.

Performance Equity

What is the minimum standard of performance we expect each individual student to achieve? On paper, we could easily insist that Student A and Student B, no matter how different, should both successfully accomplish a minimum set of skills and knowledge. But in practice, helping both students to cross that finish line may prove challenging. The backgrounds, intelligences, environments, dispositions, and unique needs of each student contribute to where each student begins a school year and how far they progress during it. Is it equitable to demand that both students achieve the same end point?

The problem of performance equity is exacerbated by the question of who gets to decide the standard of performance and how it will be measured. Should a teacher decide? Should a school, a district, or a state decide? What if different people come to different conclusions about what the minimum standards are? While we want all students to achieve, it is difficult to nail down exactly what it means to “Achieve” in concrete terms, and then to reliably insist that all students, no matter who they are, earn that achievement.

Monetary Equity

While schools and districts strive to provide equitable systems of financial allocation, disparities will always remain. For instance, is it fair to provide Student A with more funding toward their educational needs than Student B if Student A’s needs are more diverse or expensive?

But consider how educational funding is also often outside of a school’s control. If funding is based off of the community where the school is, then schools in lower socioeconomic communities have fewer dollars allocated towards them than a school in a wealthier socioeconomic community. As long as there is socioeconomic segregation, there will be a disparity between how much money any two communities have at their disposal for their schools.

If schools from poverty-stricken communities receive fewer resources from that community, is it fair for a state to provide more resources to that school to help students overcome the challenges associated with an impoverished background, even if it means taking those dollars from a different community? These are not merely educational issues, but economy and political ones as well.

Theory vs. Practice

In theory, equity in public education would give each student everything they need to achieve academic success. But defining academic success alone is a challenge, and determining and meeting the needs of each individual student to get them there presents further challenges.

This doesn’t mean we need to despair, though. As Americans, we take pride in our ideals and – though implementing them is always a challenge – we allow high standards to guide our day-to-day decisions and debates. With equity as our goal, we can then ask ourselves the question, “How can I create an equitable solution to meet the needs of each student and best allocates the resources of our school?” It’s a challenging question, but one each school leader, district administration, state legislature, and federal secretary can grapple with to help students everywhere thrive.

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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