(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills

Click here to listen to the message. See below to read it.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

As you may know, I just quoted from the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities in which he contrasts the hope of well-off Parisians with the hopelessness of Paris’ poor.

His contrast between two totally different cultures – ones that were worlds apart but nevertheless living side by side, is strikingly similar to today’s conditions in America and especially in our education system.  It is very easy to see the stark differences in how children from well-off communities are educated – and how those in poor rural or urban areas fare. 

A “Tale of Two Schools” in America would highlight such differences.  The disparity between some schools is shocking and, like Dickens’ novel, illustrates the divide not only between rich and poor, but between avenues to future success that our nation provides advantaged and disadvantaged children.

Massachusetts was the first colony and state to initiate free public education for all youth.  State officials believed that it is in the public interest to freely educate every child – all the better to build an informed and skilled citizenry.  Thomas Jefferson supported the idea of public education for all that is paid for with taxpayer dollars.  His support began the creation of schools for all children – ones near their homes and paid for with property taxes.

That practice of paying for schools with taxes on local real estate continues today.  But the outcome of that system often means that schools in neighborhoods with low property values do not have the same advantages as schools in high value areas.  

In 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that property tax funding of schools in Ohio is unconstitutional since Ohio’s constitution says that the state shall establish common schools for all youth.  And “common” is the key word.  The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled several times that the word “common” implies all schools shall offer roughly equal education opportunities and resources.

But, as we know, schools throughout the nation might be equal in their standards and in many cases their budgets, but they are far from equitable in the opportunities they provide.

Wealthy suburban schools often have amazing resources – computers for each student in every classroom, large and well-equipped science labs, abundant libraries, extensive multi-media and sports facilities, experienced teachers with masters degrees or more, and a full range of classes offered to students of every ability.  Even more, children living in well-off communities have educated parents who appreciate the importance of education.  They not only have spent countless hours reading to and teaching their children, they continue that support until their kids are grown. 

Poorer urban and rural schools are often entirely different places.  They struggle just to maintain a reasonably decent building – paint and plaster crumble, walls are covered with graffiti, libraries are non-existent, technology is limited, and teachers are overworked and often buy their own supplies.  There are few classes and resources available for gifted students,. or those in need of extra support.

Added to that situation is the culture in which less well-off students live.  Their parents are often poorly educated and often struggle just to provide food and shelter.  Many youth come from broken homes, are effectively homeless, or live with a grandmother who herself is overwhelmed.  Such kids have few of the family resources well-off kids enjoy.

Recently, governments have begun a push to increase budgets for poor schools in order to make them equal to the per pupil funding in wealthier schools.  But establishing equality in funding has not produced equal outcomes.  A huge majority of students in wealthy districts proceed on to college.  A very small minority do so from poor districts.  

The result is a perpetuation of class divisions in America.  Children  born to well-off parents are given the resources, at home and in school,  that allow them to get educations which then enrich them as adults – and the cycle of wealth continues.  In poor districts, children don’t have families that value education, they usually don’t graduate from High School, and they are thus relegated to unemployment, prison, or low income jobs.  And the cycle of poverty continues.

That results in a paradox that confounds politicians.  Roughly equal amounts of per pupil spending is becoming more common.  Locally, Cincinnati Public Schools ranks number three out of 25 area school districts in per pupil spending.  It recently spent millions to dramatically remodel or build new school buildings.  But it has been given a ‘D’ performance grade.  Indian Hill Schools per pupil spending is number one in the area but it is not far off that of Cincinnati Public.  But it has an ‘A’ grade in performance.  The two districts have similar spending per student, but the outcomes are very different.  

There are many reasons why that is so but I submit that EQUAL  spending per pupil is inherently unfair and INEQUITABLE to students in poor districts.  And that, I believe, is one reason why Unitarian Universalists support their Second Principle of “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”  And I trust you will note that the principle does not call for equality in human relations but rather equity.  

Here is a pictorial representation of what I suggest in my message this morning.  Equality does not mean the same thing as equity.  In the picture, giving the already tall boy a box to stand on gives him even greater advantages to see the game.  It’s much like the spending given to youth in Indian Hill.  They begin schooling having already been given tremendous life advantages.  Giving one box to the short or disadvantaged child does not help him much.  Much like children from poor school districts, he began life with few advantages.  

And so, to be equitable in human relations, that child should receive double or more the resources than already advantaged kids have.  Indeed, it’s likely that students in Indian Hill should receive much reduced per pupil spending – all in order to create a society that is based on equity and fairness of opportunity.

Here is another slide that illustrates my point – one which most of us can relate to since we have likely run in – or watched – a track race.  All running tracks are oval in shape and have several lanes within the oval.  Simple geometry means the outside lane in an oval track is the longest.  Inside lanes are shorter.  How do we hold a race with runners in each lane that is fair and equitable?  Those in outside lanes must start ahead of those on inside lanes.

To complete the analogy, disadvantaged kids should begin their race, or educations, way ahead in terms of resources given to them.  They will still need to meet the same standards – or run the same distance – as well-off kids.  But they will have been given sufficient resources so that they too have a fair chance to win at life.

A “Tale of Two Schools” comparison is effective because it can help us empathize with the struggles of disadvantaged kids.  And empathy is a direct result of compassion.  Having compassion for disadvantaged kids leads me, at least, to want equity for them.  I personally want a lot of my tax money to go to them – all so they can succeed and the cycle of their poverty be broken.  I empathize with such children and want fairness for them.  And I want very little of my tax money to go well-off kids – not because I want to punish them – indeed its not their fault they were born to well-off parents, but because I know they already have many advantages.

That’s a spiritual ethic taught in most world religions.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in the ethic that to whom much is given, much is required.  That does not mean a well off person must give up all that they worked hard to have.  It does mean that with blessings come responsibilities.  That’s a law of life.  Our purpose is to use our advantages to help others.

If we feel empathy for the disadvantaged, and if we seek equity for them, then we will hopefully create justice in our land.  For me, justice means everyone has approximately similar opportunities – equity in our legal system, equity in access to good healthcare, equity in job applications, and equity in education opportunities.

As we know, that will not create equal outcomes for everyone since each person uses opportunities given them in different ways.  Some are born with different skill sets.  Others are born with different personalities and thus have different work ethics.  But if life is like a track race, then people born with few advantages must be allowed to begin the race way ahead – all in order to make the race fair.

I admit to some embarrassment at the many advantages I was given just because I won a lottery of birth to educated and well-off parents.  I try to use my advantages in ways that help others – and I hope some of my inner guilt gives me empathy for those with far less.  I’m in awe of people like my partner Keith who was born into a working class family with minimal finances.  He began life attending mostly poor, urban schools.  But with few advantages, without the finances to attend college, he educated himself and with hard work is now at the top of his computer science field.

Our Second Principle is, in my mind, brilliant.  It perfectly states the idea behind a fair society.  It does not support the idea of equal outcomes for all – what communism is.  That system believes everybody should be given similar incomes, housing, and benefits.  It removes any incentive to learn and work hard.  Instead, the UU Second Principle supports the notion that with equitable capitalism, hard work and skill can pay off for anyone.  Indeed, many studies show that equitable or fair capitalist economies succeed more than those, like the US, that are not equitable.

And equity applies in multiple areas.  It means girls should be given more advantages in school than boys because boys are often given advantages our culture does not even recognize.  Boys are taught to build things and to speak up.  They’re expected to succeed and that often becomes self-fulfilling.  Girls are taught to take care of things and mostly listen.  They’re often not expected to have life-long careers but to have children and build families.  The result has been teachers and schools that often encourage and reward boys more than girls.  And boys thus enter science, technology, engineering or math fields far more than girls.  And it’s those careers that are and will be the most prosperous.  

Equity also applies with race.  Because people of color have historically been oppressed, their children have far fewer cultural and parental advantages than do white children.  Affirmative action in job and college applications are proven ways to offer equity of opportunity.  It’s a way to be fair in the track race of life.

With compassion and equity, we can achieve justice.  We  can achieve a society in which it’s not the size of your mom’s bank account, her education level, your gender, or your race that determines how far you will go.   Instead, one’s character, talent, and hard work should be the only determiners of success.

In sum, compassion + equity =  justice.  It’s the ticket to a more fair  world.  And that is a Unitarian Universalist Principle we should prioritize with our support and practice.   Thank you all for listening!