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Ryan Piurek
IU Media Relations

Debbie O'Leary
IU School of Law-Bloomington

Last modified: Monday, June 6, 2005

Is equality in education just a lot of talk?

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Many Americans have spoken out against gender and racial inequalities in education in recent decades. But in terms of backing up their "equality talk," they haven't always measured up to expectations, according to a team of researchers from Indiana University Bloomington.

The team has been awarded a four-year, $612,160 grant from the Spencer Foundation to study the public and political debates surrounding three of the most significant educational reform movements undertaken after Brown v. Board of Education -- Title IX, school funding equalization and school vouchers -- and how those debates often have undermined equalizing efforts.

"Equality of opportunity is the essence of the American dream, and America decided to make people more equal by giving them educational opportunities," said Julia Lamber, a professor of law at the IU School of Law-Bloomington and one of three researchers conducting the study. "Since 1960, things have clearly become more equal, but we haven't progressed as much as we had hoped."

"For example, how did we get to a statute (Title IX) that requires equality on gender terms, but ends up saying that if we separate boys and girls, that's OK?"

Professor of Political Science Jean Robinson said the political meaning behind the concept of educational equality and how that meaning gets defined in different contexts hasn't received this kind of attention before. "We're interested in how various parties with different positions on these reform movements have defined equality and how each of these movements has borrowed or not borrowed from each other. Because these movements are usually analyzed one at a time, the cross-movement borrowing has received little attention," she said.

In their study, titled "Political Culture, Equality Talk and Educational Policymaking," the researchers will look at detailed historical timelines for Title IX, school vouchers and school funding equalization and undertake a content analysis of the public debate in four states (California, Florida, Kentucky and Ohio) over each reform.

They hope to learn how popular and political definitions of equality emerge in different educational policy contexts, how contending definitions interact to create an equality agenda (or competing agendas), how that agenda garners political support to become a reality, and how the process varies depending on whether the policy is in the hands of local, state or federal government.

"We hope to make connections that aren't obvious and identify arguments that work and don't work," said Pamela Barnhouse Walters, Rudy Professor of Sociology. "To the extent we see interconnections, we hope others will see them, too. People in the civil rights movement talk a lot about borrowing and using each others' issues, but reform advocates don't do it that well. Having a greater understanding of what people mean by equality will certainly help us all."

To learn more about the study or to speak to any of the researchers, contact Debbie O'Leary, IU School of Law-Bloomington, at 812-855-2426 or or Ryan Piurek, IU Media Relations, at 812-855-5393 or