Using Enlightenment Ideas to Create Equity in Education

As a UVA graduate and resident of Charlottesville, I felt at home reading about Thomas Jefferson and his educational advocacy.  In discussing Jefferson’s Bill for “the More General Diffusion of Knowledge”, Gutek (2011) points out that although it never became law, it served to open dialogue regarding ‘equity in education’ and whether it is possible for ‘education to be equal and academically excellent at the same time’.

Equity is a buzz-word today as districts attempt to differentiate for student success.  For those who do not understand differentiation, equity often becomes a key-word for fairness or consistency.  It is also latched on to as the magic ticket to decrease early dropouts, increase cultural inclusion, and install early interventions to prevent failures.
I believe equity in education is imperative, but we have a ways to go.  Certainly gender equity is starting to receive success – more women than men are pursuing education, but there is still a gender divide in terms of economic reward post-education.  And if education’s purpose is to provide for a greater society and social opportunity, as our philosophers would argue, then our journey is far from over.  Furthermore, education is no longer the economic ticket it used to be a generation ago.  Studies show that a bachelor’s degree for our parents’ generation signified financial health and security, but now we are seeking higher degrees as an alternative to a failing job market, which hurts the economy with added indebtedness instead of bolstering the success of our workforce.  When students come from disadvantaged or disenfranchised backgrounds, although they can access a Jeffersonian ideal of public education, they often cannot take the next steps, or do not have support at home and must wade through the battle on their own.
It would be interesting to hear Jefferson’s views and guidance on the disparities we face between school districts, examining allocation of resources and so forth.  It’s certainly no secret that schools in economically disadvantaged areas, relying on dwindling tax allocations to support the education system, are not in a position to provide the same educational opportunities as those systems that reap rewards of industry and locale.  Could Jefferson fix our budget and create equity of advantage in our schools?  Would our modern Congress be more willing to pass legislation to create equity across the state?  As I type these questions, I am saddened at the likelihood of delegates and districts ever agreeing to such a leveled mandate.
Gutek, G.L. (2011) Historical and philosophical foundations of education: A biographical introduction. Boston, MA: Pearson.

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