The Illusion of Meritocracy in Schooling, Part 1 | A Long Repentance Post #8 | New Humanity Institute: Sangwon Yang & Mako Nagasawa


Pictured:  In 1957, white segregationists rallied in Little Rock, Arkansas, to protest Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Little Rock Nine, who were the first black students to integrate Little Rock Central High School.  Photo credit: John T. Bledsoe, Wikimedia Commons.

The Purpose of A Long Repentance Blog Series

People talk about issues of race and justice in the United States as issues of ‘justice and injustice.’  Sometimes we launch into debates about ‘the proper role of government.’  But is that the original framework from which these issues were asked and debated?

The purpose of the blog post series called A Long Repentance: Exploring Christian Mistakes About Race, Politics, and Justice in the United States is to remind our readers that these issues began as Christian heresies.  They were at variance from Christian beliefs prior to colonialism.  Since Christians enacted and institutionalized what we believe to be heretical ideas, they were very destructive and harmful, then as now.  And we bear a unique responsibility for them.  As a result, we believe we must engage in a long repentance.  We must continue to resist the very heresies that we put into motion.  Thus the title of this blog series, A Long Repentance.  The journey is long and challenging.  It may be impossible to see the end.  But along the way, it is also inspiring and sometimes breathtaking.

We also encourage you to explore this booklet, A Long Repentance: A Study Guide, for further reflections and discussion questions.

In Post #2 and Post #5, we explored how white American Protestants promoted the heretical view of Genesis 1 taught by John Locke, that the productive can take land/property from the unproductive.   Also setting themselves up for deep anxiety, they also tended maintained that the social system they set up was fair and ‘meritocratic’ – as opposed to blatantly racist.  They tended to believe that their ‘individual success’ was the result of their ‘personal hard work’ in the ‘private market.’  White Americans even hid from themselves the fact that they used massive government intervention to set up a deeply unequal and racialized social system that continues to this day.  In Post #6 and Post #7, we explored the housing market.


Government Funded School Advantages Under the Guise of “Merit”

Brian, Michaela, and others continued to meet in their company’s cafeteria to talk about issues of race.  Their conversations were kicked off by Michaela’s statement that white Americans face more discrimination than people of other racial groups.

“What about affirmative action in schools?” asked Michaela.  “Isn’t it wrong to treat people differently according to their race?  Don’t we need a meritocracy all throughout the school system?”

“Whoa,” said Brian.  “Let’s back up.  America’s kids have never played in a ‘pure meritocracy.’  So fairness might be a good idea.  But parents always want their own kids to have an advantage, don’t they?  When certain white people used government to put racial residential segregation in place, very few white people wanted to undo it.”[1]

“But what matters is working hard,” protested Michaela.  “Look at those teacher-student success movies like Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds, Akeelah and the Bee, and Freedom Writers.[2]  Against all odds, a young person can overcome the hardships.”

“I celebrate anyone’s success with them,” Brian said.  “But stories like that encourage us to believe a lie in the other direction.  The lie is about failure:  If young people fail, they alone, and probably their parents, are to blame.  We throw a blanket of “meritocracy” over an unequal playing field, to disguise it and tell ourselves it was fair.”

“And you think unfairness in schools is based on this residential segregation[3] we talked about last time?” asked Michaela.

“Absolutely,” said Brian emphatically.  “I think that’s the biggest factor.”

“Can you prove it?” said Michaela.  “I don’t want to sound so challenging and disbelieving, but you need to give me some evidence to go on.”

“Like we talked about before,” Brian said, “the FHA (Federal Housing Administration) was designed to promote racially segregated schools.  That caused a vicious cycle.  When parents look for a home, they look for a good school district and whether their home will at least not lose value, because those things are tied.  The North is already fairly segregated by race, with New York State leading the nation with the most segregated schools.[4]  And the South did become desegregated for a while, but look at what’s happening now:  Wealthy and/or white people are making new school districts or towns just to cut themselves loose from schools or areas they don’t want. Gardendale, Alabama seceded from Jefferson County School District like a donut hole from a donut,[5] despite clear racial motives.[6]  They followed Trussville, Alabama, a wealthy white suburb that broke away in 2005,[7] and Pike Road, Alabama.[8]  In Georgia, eight towns seceded from Atlanta.[9]  In Tennessee, six white school districts formed by leaving the Shelby County school district in Memphis right after mostly black Memphis became part of it.[10]  In Louisiana, mostly white St. George wants to secede from Baton Rouge.”[11]

“But in Atlanta, at least, people were fleeing from bad city management,” Michaela objected.  “In 2009, Atlanta faced a $1.5 billion debt in their pension payouts.  In 2012, the DeKalb County school district was hopelessly corrupt.[12]  But the new city of Sandy Springs outsourced their trash and cleaning by contracts, and that worked well.[13]  There are good reasons for people to secede, aren’t there?”

“People have faced pension questions and city corruption before without doing that,” said Brian.  “In 2011, Atlanta restructured its pension plan successfully.[14]  DeKalb County held its officials accountable, and school results improved.[15]  And DeKalb has noticed that they don’t retain police and firefighters because of their skimpy retirement plans.[16]   Even if it’s not explicit, seceding is a luxury that white people with wealth can afford.  Do you think government-sponsored racial segregation in housing played a huge role in laying this foundation?”

“Given our last conversation, I’d have to agree with that,” said Michaela.  “But is the inequality so bleak?  Most public schools are funded by some combination of local property taxes, and state and federal money.  And doesn’t that extra money make up for the differences in property values and school resources?  Doesn’t it go back to the quality of leadership in our schools?”

We Are Failing the Fourteenth Amendment:  Unequal Treatment Under the Law

“Let me give you an example of one, where it’s not just about leadership,” said Brian.  “My cousin Tanya lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  She’s a teacher raising her kids there.  In Bridgeport, the median property value is $171,000.  In New Canaan, only twenty miles away, the median property value is $1,254,200.[17]  And the disparity in educational attainment is just as big.  The poorest children in Connecticut did worse than the poorest students in 40 other states, including Mississippi and Arkansas.[18]  In September of 2016, the Connecticut State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Moukawsher read a ruling from his bench for over two hours.  He said that the State of Connecticut had failed in its constitutional duty to educate its children fairly.  Connecticut failed the Fourteenth Amendment, to treat its children equally under the law.

“The current system “has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder,” Judge Moukawsher said, betraying a promise in the State Constitution to give children a “fair opportunity for an elementary and secondary school education… Bridgeport… has nearly eight times the population of nearby New Canaan, [where] property… is worth more than $1 billion more.”[19]

“New York faced a similar lawsuit in 2006.  Kansas did in 2016,” said Brian.  “Tanya tells me that study after study shows that the single best thing that helps students succeed is smaller classroom size, especially for K-3.[20]  After that, it’s the level of experience of the teacher.[21]  Those two things are heavily influenced by school funding.  So let me show you the differences.  States spend less on black and brown students than they do on white students:

“In California, schools serving nonwhite students (90 percent or more nonwhite), spend $191 less per pupil than other schools on average, and $4,380 less than schools serving white students (90 percent or more white).  If those less resourced schools got an equal amount as the average, they’d be able to hire two experienced teachers, or three new teachers.  In Texas, if schools serving nonwhite students (90 percent or more nonwhite) got an equal amount as the average, they would receive $514 more per pupil and would be able to hire seven veteran teachers, or nine new teachers.”[22]

“That funding,” continued Brian, “makes a difference.  Teacher salaries make a difference.  Look at the wave of teachers going on strike because of salary and funding cuts, especially in red states.  Teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma already went on strike.  Teachers in Kentucky and Arizona are moving towards it.[23]  Teachers in Texas can’t, because by Texas law they’d risk their pensions and teaching certificates.[24]  But it’s not just red states.  In liberal blue cities, teachers might not be able to afford to live there for long because they’re priced out.[25]  If teachers can’t stay and develop their craft, ultimately students suffer.[26]

“You’re making this all about the money, though,” Michaela said.

“Even better school lunches make a difference in students’ academic achievement.  On average, student test scores go up by about 4 percentage points when they have better lunches.  And for students who qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches, their test scores go up 40 percent more than that.”[27]

“Okay, but can I still play devil’s advocate?” asked Michaela.  “Aren’t there other factors like leadership of the school, empowerment of the local community, and culture of the family?  How are kids trained to behave?  To respect authority?  And how does that translate to the classroom?”

“Michaela,” Brian said, “I believe that school leadership, community, and family are important, too.  But if you think school finances don’t matter that much, then you must be willing to do two things.  First, you must be perfectly willing to send your own children to a less financially resourced school.  Second, you must be perfectly willing to shift money away from well resourced schools to less resourced ones, believing that the shift will have little to no effect.  Are you?”


For further reflections and discussion questions, see the Study Guide.


[1] Two notable attempts include (1) George Romney as Secretary of HUD in 1970 under Nixon attempting to tie federal funding for repaving roads, etc. to racially integrated neighborhoods.  President Nixon ensured that his efforts would be frustrated.  (2) The Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley (1974) raised the question of whether the State of Michigan was guilty of allowing racially segregated schools, which violated Brown v. Board of Education.  The Court concluded that segregation in Detroit schools was caused, not by government intervention, but by “unknown and unknowable factors.”  In 2007, the Supreme Court continued to insist that history was shrouded in mystery.  In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007), SCOTUS ruled that neighborhoods were racially segregated because of individual choices in the private market, not intentional government segregation.  This ruling, and its basis, turn a blind eye to well documented government actions in housing.

[2] These films were produced in 1988, 1989, 1995, 2006, and 2007, respectively

[3] See “A Long Repentance” Blog Posts #6 and #7

[4] Davison Douglas, Jim Crow Moves North: The Battle Over Northern School Segregation, 1865 – 1954 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); as an example:  Jessica Epperly, “New York Schools Most Segregated in the Nation,” The Civil Rights Project, March 26, 2014;; Gary Orfield & Chungmei Lee, “Historic Reversals, Accelerating Resegregation, and the Need for New Integration Strategies,” The Civil Rights Project, August 2007;

[5] Alvin Chang, School Segregation Didn’t Go Away. It Just Evolved,” Vox, July 27, 2017;

[6] Emma Brown, “Judge: Mostly White Southern City May Secede from School District Despite Racial Motive,” Washington Post, April 27, 2017;–even-though-the-effort-has-attacked-dignity-of-black-school-children/2017/04/26/4d654232-2a89-11e7-b605-33413c691853_story.html

[7] Susan Eaton, “How a ‘New Secessionist’ Movement Is Threatening to Worsen School Segregation and Widen Inequalities,” The Nation, May 15, 2014;

[8] Ibid

[9] Since 2005: Milton and Sandy Springs (2005); Dunwoody (2008); Brookhaven (2012); Chattahoochee Hills, Johns Creek, and Tucker (2015); Stonecrest (2017).  See Brentin Mock, “Atlanta: A Tale of New Cities,” CityLab, March 10, 2018;; Rebekah Morris, “Opinion: We Cannot Allow Georgia Cities to Create Their Own School Districts,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 20, 2015;

[10] Susan Eaton, “How a ‘New Secessionist’ Movement Is Threatening to Worsen School Segregation and Widen Inequalities,” The Nation, May 15, 2014;

[11] Shadee Ashtari, “Richer White People In Greater Baton Rouge Seek To Secede From Poorer Black Neighbors,” Huffington Post, December 3, 2013;; (added November 16, 2018) South Carolina’s school system and racial history on public schooling was excoriated in an article by Paul Bowers, Glenn Smith, Seanna Adcox, Jennifer Berry Hawes, and Thad Moore, “Minimally Adequate,” The Post and Courier, November 14, 2018 subtitled “How South Carolina’s ‘minimally adequate’ education system fails too many students”; 

[12] Ty Tagami, “DeKalb School District in “Conflict and Crisis,” Put on Probation by Accreditation Agency, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 17, 2012;; Johnny Edwards and Bill Rankin, “Report on Georgia Corruption Calls for County CEO to Resign,” Governing the States and Localities, October 2, 2015;

[13] The Economist, “Here’s How To Do It,” The Economist, July 28, 2012;; John T. Bennett, “Suburbs Secede from Atlanta,” World News Daily, March 10, 2013;

[14] Penelope Lemov, ‘Atlanta Pulls Off a Major Pension Overhaul,’ Governing the States and Localities, July 14, 2011; ; see also Atlanta Pension Reform Case Study, City of Atlanta Pension Reform,

[15] DeKalb County School District, “DeKalb Students Narrow Achievement Gap on SAT,” 2017; and “DCSD Shows Significant Academic Growth in Recent CCRPI Scores,” 2017;

[16] Tia Mitchell, “Looking to Hire 155 Officers, DeKalb Police Tries New Strategies,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 16, 2018; notes, “There are other police departments near DeKalb with a lower call volumes and stress levels yet higher pay. During the economic downturn, DeKalb police and firefighters also were required to pay more toward their pension and other benefits which further reduced the size of their checks. Officers recently received a three-percent pay raise that boosted the starting salary for recruits with high school diplomas from $38,151 annually to $39,295. Still, Cobb County and Atlanta police start new officers above $40,000.”  See also Tia Mitchell, “DeKalb Could Create New Pension for Just Police and Fire,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 2, 2018;–politics/dekalb-could-create-new-pension-for-just-police-and-fire/nvHCUXriwe3I0EDJAUpnuL/

[17] Both median property values provided by Zillow, data through September 30, 2018; last accessed November 12, 2018

[18] Elizabeth A. Harris, “Judge, Citing Inequality, Orders Connecticut to Overhaul Its School System”, New York Times, September 7, 2016;

[19] Ibid

[20] Center for Public Education, “Class Size and Student Achievement”;

[21] Steffen Mueller, “Teacher Experience and the Class Size Effect – Experimental Evidence”,; p.25 concludes, “What is more, teacher experience does not matter in larger classes. Therefore, at least in the STAR experiment, the positive effects of both teacher experience and class size reductions, which are repeatedly reported in the literature, are driven by senior teachers in small classes only. The results support scholars who emphasize the improvements in teaching quality that become possible for certain kinds of teachers in smaller classes.”

[22] Distilled from Ary Spatig-Amerikaner, “Unequal Education: Federal Loophole Enables Lower Spending on Students of Color,” Center for American Progress, August 2012, p.10; (boldface ours) based on data submitted in 2009, writes, “Just how big are these differences? In California… If an average-sized school got an extra $4,380 for every student, it would mean an extra $3.3 million per year. If it were to get a more modest boost of $191 per student to bring it in line with the majority of schools in the state, then it would get approximately $145,000 extra per year. What could that buy? New teachers in California are paid approximately $45,000 a year, and veterans with 11 years or more of teaching experience are paid an average of $68,000 a year. If per-student funding were increased in the schools serving almost entirely students of color to the same level as the rest of the state’s schools enjoy, it would pay the salaries of two experienced teachers or three new teachers, or buy any number of other valuable educational inputs such as computers, guidance counselors, or teaching coaches.  In Texas the average high-minority school is 708 students; new teachers are paid $39,150, and veterans earn $47,110 each year. If an average school in the Lone Star state were to receive an extra $514 in per-pupil funding—enough to bring it up to the level of spending the rest of the schools in the state enjoy—it would be able to pay the salaries of seven veteran teachers or nine new teachers.”

[23] The Takeaway, “State Education Budgets Across the Country Are in Crisis. Here’s Why.” WNYC Studios, April 6, 2018;; Caitlin Emma, “Teachers Are Going on Strike in Trump’s America,” Politico, April 12, 2018;; Craig Harris, “This Arizona Teacher Doubled His Salary by Getting a Teaching Job in California,” WFAA 8 ABC News, April 7, 2018;

[24] Alex Samuels, “Teachers in Other States Are Striking; Texas Teachers Can’t Do That,” WFAA 8 ABC News, April 5, 2018;

[25] Eric Westervelt, “More Teachers Can’t Afford To Live Where They Teach,” NPR Ed, March 24, 2016; features Boston and the California Bay Area.  Katie Marzullo, “Silicon Valley Seeks Solutions for Affordable Teacher Housing,” ABC 7 News, January 25, 2018; reports, “More than 100 teachers gathered at Gunn High School in Palo Alto Thursday evening, hoping to hear solutions to what they call a housing crisis. They can’t afford to live where they work.”

[26] Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Jonah E. Rockoff, “The Long Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood,” National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), December 2011; demonstrate that a teacher’s value-add to student performance on standardized tests is a reasonable representation for other positive outcomes like college attendance and even having children before marriage; it stands to reason that more teacher experience improves this.

[27] Michael L. Anderson, Justin Gallagher, and Elizabeth Ramirez Ritchie, “How the Quality of School Lunch Affects Students’ Academic Performance,” Brookings Institution, May 3, 2017; notes and provides links to “A lengthy medical literature [which] examines the link between diet and cognitive development, and diet and cognitive function. The medical literature focuses on the biological and chemical mechanisms regarding how specific nutrients and compounds are thought to affect physical development (e.g., sight), cognition (e.g., concentration, memory), and behavior (e.g., hyperactivity).”


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