Equity in Education


Equity in Education

Education is said to be the great equalizer. The modern U.S. school system was created in the 19th century with the intention of educating the masses — not just the privileged or religious elite. A public role for higher education, and systems for broadening access to it, was carved out over time, too — through the creation of land-grant colleges during and after the Civil War, the passage of the G.I. Bill after World War II, and the establishment of community colleges in the 1960s.

Education is said to be the great equalizer. The modern U.S. school system was created in the 19th century with the intention of educating the masses — not just the privileged or religious elite. A public role for higher education, and systems for broadening access to it, was carved out over time, too — through the creation of land-grant colleges during and after the Civil War, the passage of the G.I. Bill after World War II, and the establishment of community colleges in the 1960s.

Playing Field Remains Staggered

In theory, education promotes mobility by equipping all students with the knowledge, skills and competencies needed for gainful employment and civic engagement. But U.S. schools and colleges have, throughout history, done little to level the playing field, in some cases actually exacerbating inequality. The country struggles with stubborn gaps in educational attainment by income and by race. Just 11 percent of students from the lowest-income families secure a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared with 58 percent of students from the highest-income families. Among white Americans age 25 or older, 44 percent have earned an associate’s degree or higher, compared with 29 percent and 21 percent of their Black and Latinx counterparts, respectively.

Notably, the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee children a right to an education; the authority for public schooling falls to the states. And state constitutions vary significantly in their K-12 and postsecondary provisions, with only some specifying funding levels and stipulating the provision of special education, for example. 

Inequality Remains a Challenge

Widespread and growing inequality is perhaps the biggest challenge facing U.S. education. Among the myriad disparities that exist within and across the education system: tracking; limited support for and discrimination against diverse learning needs; biases in discipline practices; varied academic approaches (e.g., standards and curricula); preferential admissions to certain students (e.g., legacies and athletes); and the role of standardized tests in admissions (including testing requirements; Advanced Placement participation and passage rates; and the correlation between higher incomes and higher scores). 

Reporting on uneven educational access, quality and outcomes is critical because it helps to explain some of the country’s gravest economic and social challenges. Many of the factors contributing to educational inequality are actionable, underscoring the need for both investigative and solutions-oriented reporting on the topic. The complexity and far-reaching implications of equity in education, however, make it an especially difficult topic to cover. Reporters risk oversimplifying or altogether disregarding the underlying forces behind inequality, such as racism and poverty, and, in turn, misidentifying its solutions. 

The following modules will help you explore resources and historical insights to help you effectively cover the systemic causes and effects of educational inequality. 


7 Questions to Ask About Equity in Education

  • How many kindergartners in my district/state attended high-quality early-childhood education programs? How does my district/state measure kindergarten readiness and how do the results vary among different demographic groups?
  • What does the funding look like for schools in my area serving low-income and minority students? How does that compare to affluent and/or predominately white schools? How do individual schools compare to the district average?

Misleading Conflation of Equity and Critical Race Theory

A more recent movement against school equity programs has conflated equity with critical race theory, a movement that started with legal scholars in the late 1970s.

While panic over critical race theory emerged in 2020, disputes in school board meetings turned particularly tense in the spring and summer of 2021, as lawmakers in dozens of states proposed legislation attempting to ban teaching on critical race theory

Latest News

Abbott: Texas May Challenge Requirement To Educate Undocumented Kids

Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that Texas would consider challenging a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring states to offer free public education to all children, including those of undocumented immigrants.

The remarks came days after a leaked draft of a forthcoming U.S. Supreme Court opinion revealed that a majority of justices are poised to revoke Roe v. Wade, the landmark case establishing the right to abortion. 

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Amid U.s. Culture Wars, Classrooms Become Brave Spaces For Honest Conversations

Parents, politicians and activists flooded school board meetings across the country in recent months, desperate to be heard. 

In 60-second sound bites, they exploded over masks, books and so-called critical race theory. Their voices often echoed across social media and fueled viral news segments.

But hours after those tense meetings end, teachers and students walked into schools, feeling the reverberations of the culture wars that have consumed American education.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

A Guide to the Guides: What to Know About LGBTQ Style Guides for Journalists

There are numerous LGBTQ style guides for journalists. Most include similar advice for what is and isn’t appropriate to ask gay and trans sources as well as how to steer clear of some oft-repeated misinformation. Offering your pronouns — e.g. she/her/hers, they/them/theirs — at the start of a conversation invites your interviewee to reply with the information they want you to have about their identity.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Getting Out of the Statehouse and Into the Schoolhouse When Covering LGBTQ Students

A consistent criticism from LGBTQ organizations of media coverage of assault on gay and trans rights is that it features too few of the people most affected. Here are three suggestions for education reporters seeking to counter this.

Challenge the narrative: Francisco Vara-Orta is a former Education Week staff writer and EWA board member who is now director of diversity and inclusion for Investigative Reporters and Editors. Reporters need to push back on misleading or false assertions, he says.  

Blog: The Educated Reporter

How to Better Cover LGBTQ Students in the Pandemic Era of ‘Don’t Say Gay,’ Book Bans and Other Issues
This deep dive catches reporters up on the legislation and issues affecting LGBTQ students. Read this main story and two other related pieces to improve your coverage.

Ranging from “Don’t Say Gay” laws to bans on transgender students’ participation in sports and on gay- and trans-themed books in schools, a record 238 anti-LGBTQ bills were filed in U.S. statehouses during the first three months of 2022. Even before the first were signed into law, the new measures had an impact in K-12 schools and on college campuses.

Whose ‘Discomfort?’ Covering Efforts to Limit Teaching About Racism

Whose ‘Discomfort?’ Covering Efforts to Limit Teaching About Racism

Who gets to decide what teachers can say about our nation’s problematic history of racism? Covering this increasingly polarizing debate is a growing challenge for education reporters, as efforts to be fair and historically accurate now often draw accusations of bias or censorship. 

To help journalists better navigate this challenge, the Education Writers Association gathered several veteran reporters with extensive experience covering the debates over critical race theory and the teaching of history. They shared their reporting tips and advice during a webinar.

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A School Created A Homeless Shelter In The Gym And It Paid Off In The Classroom

The idea of optimizing school district property for evening and weekend use isn’t new, but Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School (BVHM, for short) in San Francisco appears to be the first modern public elementary school to have hosted a long-term, overnight family shelter.

Some objected: Shelter should not be the responsibility of a school, they argued.

And yet, “We were the folks that were willing to do it,” said Nick Chandler, the BVHM community school coordinator.

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Does Not Equal

The fight for linguistic and cultural preservation predates statehood, given the assimilatory nature of Western education taught in New Mexico’s public schools. The struggle has been ongoing and, despite a massive victory through acknowledgment in a seminal court case, it continues through to today, an SFR analysis of fairness in the state’s education system finds.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Education Labs: The Past, Present and Future of Grant-Funded Journalism Units
“Community-funded journalism is not a silver bullet, but it’s potential support that can help you cover important service journalism.”

Some hope is rising amid the financial destruction that has decimated the newsrooms of local for-profit newspapers. At least five legacy news outlets have expanded their education coverage by raising grant funding in the last several years. 

Of course, nonprofit news organizations are nothing new, considering The Associated Press is a 176-year-old cooperative. But these new projects are creating unusual hybrids: grant-funded reporting teams within traditional for-profit companies. 

Latest News

‘They Should Be Embarrassed’: Advocates Criticize Indiana Senate For 0-50 Vote On Special Education Bill

In a rarely seen display of opposition, the Indiana Senate voted 0-50 this week to kill a piece of legislation that would have changed the way special education disputes between families and schools are resolved. 

Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) sponsored the legislation but didn’t plan to call it down for a vote on Tuesday because he knew it would fail. But Kruse said he was urged by Senate colleagues to bring House Bill 1107 to the floor. Some lawmakers switched their “yes” votes to “no” votes until only one “yes” remained: Kruse. 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Examining HBCUs During Black History Month
From Jan. 1 to Feb. 22 this year, Nexis listed a total of 89 articles that included “HBCU” and “bomb threats.” Only 29 articles mentioned “HBCU” and “enrollment” during the same time period.

Nearly a century since Black History Week was created, and more than 50 years since February was first recognized as Black History Month, many states and school districts are trying to suppress or control what the public learns about the history of Black people in America.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Parents Really Want Useful Education News. They Aren’t All Getting It.
“White parents seem to be able to leverage their informal networks with greater efficiency. These networks work better for white parents than they do for parents of color.”

This article was republished with permission from Nieman Lab.

American parents identify information about education and schools — their local schools, in particular — as their top news need, and that need has only grown during the pandemic. Brand-new studies conducted in the spring of 2020 and August of 2021 show that interest in news about schools increased substantially over the period.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Martin Luther King Jr. Said, ‘Education is a Battleground.’ Reflecting on His Words
King’s remarks on education continue to be relevant in 21st century America.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accepted the John Dewey Award from the United Federation of Teachers in 1964, he spoke of education being a battleground in the freedom struggle.

“It was not fortuitous that education became embroiled in this conflict,” King said. “Education is one of the vital tools the Negro needs in order to advance. And yet it has been denied him by devises of segregation and manipulations with quality.”

Blog: The Educated Reporter

These New Education Books Make Perfect Gifts. (Trust Us.)
What we’re giving the education reporters (and education enthusiasts) on our list this year

Shopping for the education writer in your life this holiday season? Any reporter can tell you which is the best seat in the school board meeting room: It’s the one near the only working wall outlet. While this popular version of a portable battery pack will set you back about $50, it’s reliable, durable, and speedy. (No, EWA does not do paid product endorsements. I actually use this.) It also has the benefit of being cable free if your gift recipient uses a compatible smartphone.

Sponsor Webinar: Data Tool Explores If Colleges Boost Alumni Paychecks

Sponsor Webinar: Data Tool Explores If Colleges Boost Alumni Paychecks

What makes a college “good”?

Providing stellar educations and career opportunities to a select few? Or creating lots of opportunities for all kinds of people, and helping disadvantaged students get into careers that can sustain families?

Reporters who want answers can use a new free data tool that helps identify whether colleges are opening the doors of socioeconomic mobility and promoting equity in education.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

How to Put the HBCU Story in Context
Journalists share strategies for reporting on the chronic underfunding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

If the disparity in underfunding Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) could be told through two schools, consider Texas Southern University (TSU) and the University of Houston (UH). Both started around the same time with similar missions, serving populations with similar economic backgrounds. The colleges were even located across the street from each other.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Covering School Board Meetings? Tips to Tackle the COVID-19, Critical Race Theory Culture Wars
Attending hyper politicized school board meetings in this day and age requires much preparation.

Division over COVID-19 and racial justice is playing out in school board meetings across the country, turning typically sleepy gatherings into politicized and, at times, volatile events.

When meetings turn contentious, reporters need to take care to avoid amplifying misinformation, and provide context on key issues and the board’s authority.