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Building a Better Balance Wheel

Policy brief imagines the features of a truly equitable education system


William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
Jennifer King Rice, (301) 405-5580,

URL for this press release:


BOULDER, CO (September 15, 2015) – Horace Mann envisioned public education as having the potential to be the “balance wheel” and “great equalizer” of our society. This vision remains powerful today, with policymakers and others pinning their hopes on schools as the one institution that can address the vast inequalities in larger society. Concerns about those societal imbalances are minimized or eliminated if each new generation of children is given, through the schools, a fair shot at success by being given equal opportunities to learn.

Since Mann’s vision was articulated in the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. has made enormous advances in establishing a universal education system. Yet his balance-wheel vision has never been realized.

In Investing in Equal Opportunity: What Would it Take to Build the Balance Wheel?, Professor Jennifer King Rice of the University of Maryland revisits the idea of education as society’s great equalizer. What she describes is a current school system with its own inequities, far from the needed counter-balance to the opportunity gaps that arise from poverty, discrimination and other outside-school forces.

Yet Professor Rice then considers the alternative: what would an education system look like if it were fully committed to creating a system of equal opportunity? She describes the resources and supporting policies necessary to have hopes of achieving such a system. Recognizing that the opportunity gap goes well beyond school control and extends to a range of socioeconomic and other factors, she explains how efforts to promote equity must include a broader set of services.

Professor Rice stresses that the most sensible way of addressing poverty and other societal ills is directly, through a robust social welfare state, a strong employment sector, and civil rights protections. But she seriously takes on the challenge posed by those who turn instead to the public schools.

The brief describes resources both within the traditional education sphere and reaching beyond it, expanding the role of education in addressing all students’ needs. Her recommendations for policymakers include:

  • Recognizing the broader goals of education such as civic responsibility, democratic values, economic self-sufficiency, and social and economic opportunity;
  • Ensuring that all schools have the fundamental resources necessary for student success, especially for those students with disadvantaged backgrounds;
  • Expanding the services and resources offered to schools in high-poverty neighborhoods, providing wrap-around services such as nutritional supports and health clinics; and
  • Promoting a policy context supportive of equal opportunity and sensitive to local circumstances.

Find Investing in Equal Opportunity: What Would it Take to Build the Balance Wheel? by Jennifer King Rice on the web at:


The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on NEPC, please visit

This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (