red apple on wooden table

"Inequality in education can be whittled down to the economic segregation that exists in most American school districts."

Sometimes equality in education comes by choice; other times by force.

In 1992, a school district in rural Arkansas sued the state, claiming unfair distribution of school funds, in violation of the state and federal constitutions. In 2002, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision that found the state education's system was constitutionally inequitable and inadequate. But it wasn't until two years later, under pressure from the state Supreme Court to comply with its ruling, that the state legislature agreed to consolidate 57 school districts and increase education spending by more than $400 million.

School districts serving impoverished areas have received almost a 30% increase in funding to help students succeed, says Arkansas State Senator Jim Argue (D-Little Rock). Efforts are also underway to raise the quality of school administrators and teachers and of pre-school, after-school and summer enrichment programs.

In Arkansas, most of the low-income students attend schools with the "worst facilities and the least trained teachers, " Argue says.

"We've tried to develop strategies to help those districts facing extra challenge to retain good teachers through salary bonuses and [teaching] scholarship programs that are repaid by service targeted at those districts."

Attracting high-quality teachers to schools in low-income neighborhoods is a challenge, nationally, says Richard D. Kahlenberg, an education expert and a senior fellow with The Century Foundation, a New York-based progressive think tank.

Acknowledging the importance of pre-kindergarten programs in helping disadvantaged students succeed, Arkansas is now allocating $72 million to a statewide program for 3- and 4-year-olds at, or below, 200% of the poverty level. There are plans to increase that amount to $110 million, he adds.

The causes of inequality in education in the United States can be whittled down to one single fact, according to Kahlenberg: the economic segregation that exists in most American school districts.

"A lot of research finds that if a low-income student is given a chance to go to a middle-class school, [he or she] will perform much better," he says.

There are three reasons why.  "We know that children learn from one another all the time," Kahlenberg says. "In schools where all the children are low income…they are more likely to have discipline problems and less likely to work hard to get into college, because it's not a reality for them."

Studies also show that suburban children have an advantage in having parents who are involved with the school system.

"Middle class parents are four times more likely to be part of the PTA than a parent who is working several jobs and may not have a car, Kahlenberg says.

So what's the solution? To integrate schools, it is key to provide incentives for middle-class families, Kahlenberg says. As an example, Kahlenberg points to an urban school in Hartford, Conn. that attracted white suburban students by opening a magnet Montessori school.

"For low-income students to get a chance to go to a suburban school, there must be an incentive for the middle-class school." Kahlenberg says. "For example, about 25% of St. Louis' urban populations attend suburban schools. In exchange, the suburban schools receive extra funding.

Changing attitudes are also improving school integration, Kahlenberg says, adding "most people see racial integration as a positive thing."