This week marked the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. As the event unfolded, many of us held our breath as we watched children compete to spell words most of us had never heard before that moment. But here’s something most viewers did not know: Many of those contestants were on that stage because their parents were able to buy them another chance to compete.
Before 2018, a child needed to win a regional championship to receive a spot at the national finals. But as the Wall Street Journal reported, last year, Scripps changed the rules: Competitors who didn’t qualify through the traditional method, including eventual champion Karthik Nemmani, could purchase a spot for $750.
This year, the going rate jumped to $1,500 and more than half of the 562 spellers — or, to be accurate, their families — in the competition paid it.
There is no society in existence anywhere, ever, where money did not confer some privilege. But in the United States, we are forever finding new privileges made available for purchase.
The result is that we offer multiple breaks to those who can afford it, while holding those who can’t to a tough, often punitive standard.
It starts almost at the beginning. Our method of funding schools based on local taxes results in a huge disparity of resources between the wealthiest and poorest school districts. Attempts to even out the playing field continue to lag — in New York City, kindergartners who come from the whitest and wealthiest corners of the city are still significantly more likely to test into the city’s gifted and talented programs.
One possible reason? A growing test prep industry, for those who have the discretionary income to pay up to $400 an hour for the assist.
Admission to elite colleges is determined by grades, standardized test scores and, increasingly, résumés for 18-year-old children that would put many an adult to shame, all fueled by an admissions industrial complex of tutors, placement coaches and parents — usually mothers — who can afford to put their own professional lives on hold to best set their children up for the future.
Then there is the 0.01% — the ones who can afford what can best be described as the legalized bribery of a multimillion-dollar donation to an institution of higher learning, in return for a special consideration for their child. (This is where I get to remind you that shortly before Harvard University admitted Jared Kushner to its Class of 2003, it received a $2.5 million pledge from his father.)
In turn, getting a decent foothold in the workplace is increasingly dependent on the ability to take low-paying or unpaid internships, which shuts out students who actually need to work for decent pay during the summer.
And if a student can’t get a prestigious enough summer gig on his or her own, parents with money to spare can sign up for services such as Dream Careers, which offers “guaranteed internships,” along with housing in such desirable cities as New York, San Francisco and London. This summer’s two-month programs start at the low, low price of $8,000.
At the same time, other students are hobbled by student debt, which pushes them into forgoing one desired career for another, or leaves them scrambling to catch up to financially more fortunate peers in matters ranging from homeownership to retirement savings.
And then, of course, there is the criminal justice system.
Many of its features, such as cash bail and heavy fines for traffic violations, hit poor Americans harder than they do the wealthy. (The victims, not surprisingly, are disproportionately minorities.) As the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote in 2017, “the typical U.S. jail is about 60% filled not with convicted criminals but with people awaiting trial, stuck behind bars not because of their guilt or innocence or their risk to flee, but because of their poverty.”
We’ve come to take these disparities and different outcomes for granted so much that what should be a societal embarrassment goes barely remarked upon. It takes a scandal — like, say, the wealthy parents alleged to have bribed their children’s way into college — for people to become outraged over the unfairness, though not enough, mind you, to actually do something about it.
As for the spelling bee, I do need to point out that not just any random wealthy parent can buy their child’s way into the prestigious competition. The child needs to be a serious competitor. As the parent organization points out, the program is meant to address geographic disparities. Thanks to the way lower-level qualifying competitions are organized, students in Ohio get 18 spots at the finals, while Georgia gets only one. That’s hardly fair.
But suggesting that parents pull out their wallets and pay up isn’t exactly an equitable way to solve this sort of problem, either.
All that does is create yet another unfairness. It allows the parents with means the opportunity to buy their child’s way out of a dilemma, while leaving others who are less well-off out of luck.
Surely, the Scripps National Spelling Bee — and the rest of us — can do better than that.
Helaine Olen is a contributor to The Washington Post.