BIRMINGHAM -- At Birmingham Covington School, students begin the day watching video announcements on their classroom TVs. Science labs are filled with microscopes, dissecting tools -- even a wind tunnel. Students begin Spanish in the third grade. They can learn every instrument imaginable -- from the timpani to the viola. The average class has 19 students.
Twenty-five miles southeast, at Columbus Middle School on Detroit's northeast side, classrooms are packed with students, an average of 30. There aren't enough textbooks for the students to take home. Unlike Covington, there's no air conditioning, no swimming pool, no showers, no school Web site, no TV studio, no team sports and no classes in art, music or foreign languages.
This is the real education gap, the one few people talk about.
"We've rigged the school system against the poorest children," said Kati Haycock, executive director of The Education Trust, a national nonprofit that advocates for school reform. "Instead of organizing the system to ameliorate the problem, we've organized it to exacerbate it."
Fifty-three years after Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregated schools, and 40 years after the 1967 civil unrest, schools in the Detroit area are still segregated and unequal. Parents today lament the same problem that existed for blacks in 1967: They have few options for their children.
For this and other reasons, working-class blacks continue to trail whites who come from higher-income homes. In 2005, one in five blacks in Michigan did not have a high school diploma, an improved rate over 1970, when two-thirds didn't graduate. Whites fare better: One in nine adults don't finish.
In Michigan, the statewide test score gap between black and white children is dramatically high, but blacks in wealthier schools fare much better.
In Birmingham, for example, black sixth-graders are only 5 percentage points behind their white peers in reading. For the state, that gap is 21 percentage points. Black Birmingham sixth-graders are 14 percentage points behind whites in math, compared to the 36 percentage point gap statewide.
Studies have documented the factors behind the gap: poverty and the education level of parents. Quality schools can make the difference among children from the poorest and most dysfunctional homes, specialists say.
But 78 percent of black children in the four-county area live in Detroit, where the number of parochial schools is declining, charter schools are capped and neighboring districts limit the number of Detroit children they accept.
Educators say funding disparities ensure that another generation of Detroit children will wind up behind their suburban counterparts, not ready for college and lacking the skills or education needed to compete for jobs.
Thirteen-year-old Deaira Robinson knows this. At Columbus Middle School, she has to share textbooks with other students. She wishes she could take art, music and Spanish classes.
"It's unfair that suburban schools have more resources than we do," Deaira said. "It makes me feel like I'm not as deserving as them. We should be treated equally."
The numbers tell the story.
In Birmingham, one of the wealthiest districts in the region, public schools spend an average of $7,191 per pupil, about $1,320 more per child than Detroit. Birmingham teachers make an average of $68,736 a year, $8,667 more a year than Detroit teachers.
"I recruited a great French teacher. She was new to teaching, but she was terrific," said Alvin Wood, principal of Columbus Middle School. "But she got a better opportunity in Grosse Pointe, so she left."
Funding losses have forced Wood to eliminate all foreign-language classes. If he had the money, he'd restore art, music, woodshop and homemaking, offer computer technology and buy science equipment. As it is, students don't have materials to dissect a frog.
"People put a lot of blame on the kids, but I say, let's trade for a day. I take my kids to your school and you put your kids in my school and let's see what happens," Wood said.
Deaira said in social studies she became frustrated last school year because she had to share a book with five students in her group.
"I remember one day, early in the school year, it was really hot in the class and we were all sweaty," she said. "I couldn't see the book and I just couldn't concentrate. I asked for a pass and went downstairs, crying. I called my mother and told her I couldn't take it."
Elexus Brown, a June graduate of Columbus, said she experienced similar problems.
Elexus, 13, said in science class, 32 students shared eight microscopes. Even then, students were never given slides of cells or organisms to view. Her mother, April Brown, who works for a Detroit school taking care of the children of teenage mothers who are students, said the problems at Columbus could be fixed if the district had more money.
"I would like to have more choices of where I could send my daughter," she said. "It's a shame because all children have potential. They're like sponges and they soak up whatever you teach them. But if they're in these (inferior) schools, they get stunted."
National Education Association President Reg Weaver said few talk about funding inequities as they discuss the black-white gap in standardized test scores.
"Every recommendation relating to improving the gap that has come forth in the past 25 years has focused on standards, assessments and accountability," he said. "But it never includes equitable funding."