Horace Mann said that “education is the great equalizer,” and I became a teacher because I believed this. I wanted to share the transformative power of education with students who needed it most, so I began my teaching career at an elementary school in District 12 in the Bronx. The school was in the poorest congressional district in the nation and had one of the highest rates of students living in shelters. These kids faced problems I could never fathom as a child, but I was optimistic because education is supposed to be the key to improving their lives.  

Most people are lucky enough to be ignorant of the differences between high poverty schools and more affluent schools. When I was teaching science in the Bronx, my students were using an assortment of tape measures and rulers-- enough for about half the class-- while across the river, in Manhattan and New Jersey, students looked at cells through microscopes, took field trips to museums, and read from new, updated texts.   

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I wonder if most Americans, including my elected officials, recognize that there are serious issues with our education system that disproportionately affect schools in our lowest income areas. These are the schools that can least afford to lose any funding yet, year after year, they are told they must do more with less. I’ve seen great teachers leave schools in underserved communities, frustrated by a lack of support and by the accusations that they are the ones failing their students. Money that is supposed to supplement schools with the highest populations of students living in poverty is chronically underfunded. Too often I have seen test scores used to assign blame instead of to identify areas of need. This is not the type of education that will be “the great equalizer.”  

These problems are not new. For decades, educators and lawmakers have recognized and tried to remedy issues facing our schools most in need. In 1965, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It was a part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” one piece of a puzzle that was meant to restore equity in education. ESEA addressed deficits in the education of those students living in poverty, creating programs like Title I, which have had a significant impact on the communities that need it most. 

The last reauthorization of ESEA was in 2001, which gave us No Child Left Behind. Well-intentioned as it was, it created a host of problems that lawmakers could not have foreseen. It was up for reauthorization again in 2007, but has been sitting dormant in Washington for nearly a decade. 

As a teacher in a high poverty school, I have hope for a new student-centered ESEA. Both the House and the Senate have passed separate versions of the bill, but are currently at an impasse on how to combine their efforts to formulate one clear document that will serve all students. Teachers like me have always been expected to make the best with what we have, and right now my students need Congress to make the best of these differing bills and to come to consensus on legislation that puts students like mine first.  

I’m calling on Congress to make decisions that will help education to become that “great equalizer,” by significantly increasing Title I funding to drive targeted resources to high-poverty populations of students and by denying the portability of Title I funds which will take funds away from schools like mine. I’m asking my elected officials to help level the playing field by incentivizing a more equitable distribution of effective teachers by setting aside Title II funds to support districts that want to recruit or reward high-performing teachers to teach in hard-to-staff subjects or schools.  

Right now, I see opportunity. Opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Opportunity for legislators to listen to the voices of children and parents who are traditionally underserved. Opportunity for lawmakers to shed their political allegiances, side with the disempowered children of this country, and restore this bill to its original intent: ensuring every student has equitable access to education.

Johnson is a fifth grade special education teacher at PS105 in the Bronx, and after-school chess coach and a member of Educators 4 Excellence - New York.