We Always Say There’s A Wealth Disparity in Speech and Debate – Now Here’s the Proof

We Always Say There’s A Wealth Disparity in Speech and Debate – Now Here’s the Proof

Wealthy debaters have a laundry list of advantages in Speech and Debate. Generally, the wealthier you are, the better school you go to – even if it’s not a private school, you likely live in a district that receives better funding and has more resources available. The more money your school has, the more it can pay coaches, attracting both better quality coaches (generally, not always) and being able to hire multiple coaches for one category. Your school can afford to go to tournaments that are far away, including national circuit tournaments, meaning you can face the best competition and can have access to longer tournaments with break rounds. Even the smaller issues can add up – being able to afford briefs/websites, getting an extra 2 hours of sleep because your team can afford a hotel for travel tournaments, being able to afford nicer suits and better laptops, having the ability to prep rather than spend weekends fundraising for their team to even compete, etc.

And, all of these advantages compound, creating “dynasty teams”; wealthy schools with wealthy debaters who all enjoy these privileges and therefore elevate one another. Say, for example, Roosevelt HS (generic presidential named school), devotes thousands to their debate team, they have multiple PF coaches, their students never have to fundraise and can all spend time prepping, they have access to every brief, and can have a 14 person strong team because they can afford to travel to avoid event caps. They all get the best education, and with 10 students researching and several coaches to bounce ideas off of, they likely come in with some of the strongest arguments. They’ve all practiced them two, three, four, five times because their team is so large they can do as many mock rounds as they want. They show up to the tournament, not only as some of the strongest debaters, but also not being able to debate each other. Compare that with a poor inner-city public school; the LD team has no coach and was just founded in the last few years. There are 3 debaters, one varsity, two novices, so they get very few mock rounds, and the ones they get are much less productive. They can’t afford to go to tournaments out of district, so they get less out-round experience. They spend their Sunday fundraising so their team can compete, so they lose out on a whole day of prepping. The team can’t afford JSTOR or briefs. How does the latter compete with the former?

I wanted to paint this image because often unless you come from a low-income school or are low-income yourself, it can be hard to see the privilege you have. You’ve never not had briefs, or mock rounds, or a coach, or a captain to read over your case. It is easy to take these things for granted. But the more we talk about these inequities, the closer we can get to filling the gap.

In order to analyze the effects of wealth on debate, we compared the performance of students who attend private schools with students who attend public schools at the state tournament in Ohio over the course of the last 5 years. While this is not a perfect methodology, we simply don’t have access to students’ financial records, so this is the best we could do. We do believe that, for the most part, when talking about trends and averages, the type of school students attend can give insight on their socioeconomic status.

LINCOLN DOUGLAS at the state tournament:

(Data extrapolated from the Ohio Speech & Debate circuit)

Clearly the data shows that private school debaters will advance at a significantly higher rate than debaters attending public schools. It looked as though there was a steady and slight decline for about 4 years, but this most recent year (2018-2019) it shot back up. Additionally, in 4/5 of the recorded years, an LD debater attending a private school won the state tournament.

Overall, in LD, for the last 10 years, out of the 20 students who have made finals, 13 have been from private school, or 65% – notable, given they usually account for ~20-35% of the debaters. In the last 5 years, 8 out of 10 debaters in finals have been from private schools, or 80%. This shows that private schools are becoming increasingly dominant.

PUBLIC FORUM at the state tournament:

(Data extrapolated from the Ohio Speech & Debate circuit)

Again, the data shows that private school debate teams will advance at a higher rate, though not as significant as LD, than debaters attending public schools. As with LD, it looked as though there was a steady and slight decline for about 4 years, but this most recent year (2018-2019) it shot back up. Additionally, in 3/5 of the recorded years, a PF debate team attending a private school won the state tournament.

Overall, in PF, for the last 10 years, out of the 20 teams who have made finals, 8 have been from private schools, or 40%. The trend seems to be more advantageous to private schools, with private schools closing out finals this past year and winning 5 out of the past 7 state tournaments.

POLICY at the state tournament:

(Data extrapolated from the Ohio Speech & Debate circuit)

Policy Is sort of all over the place. The majority of years, public school Policy debate teams seem to perform better. However, when private school Policy teams advance at a higher rate (2017-2018 & 2016-2017), they do so at a very significant margin. Policy debate had almost the exact opposite experience as LD & PF – for about 4 years private school debaters were steadily performing better than they were the previous year, up until this most recent year (2018-2019).

Overall, in Policy Debate, for the last 10 years, out of the 20 teams who have made finals, 7 were from private schools, or 35%. Additionally, in 2/5 of the recorded years, a PF debate team attending a private school won the state tournament.

The graph above compares all 3 events and shows that over the last 5 years, in both PF and LD, debaters attending private schools were appearing to do statistically worse at states, up until 2018-2019, where in both PF and LD, private schools did significantly better. Interestingly, Policy had the inverse effect – private school debaters were steadily performing better than they were the previous year, up until this most recent year (2018-2019).

Nonetheless, the data clearly shows us that private schools do disproportionately well at states in LD and PF. In the past 5 years for both events, debaters attending private schools have advanced at significantly higher rates – often times performing two times better than their counterparts attending public schools. As a community, we often talk about the ways that wealthier debaters have advantages in Speech and Debate – generally having better coaches, access to more briefs, and so on. But we really don’t analyze the outcomes and see how this is truly affecting debate.

In writing this article, I wanted to demonstrate that wealth inequities in Speech and Debate are not something poor kids just complain about. They’re not able to be easily overcome. They have real and lasting effects, and our team created Triumph Debate in an effort to shine a light on how debate can be inaccessible, and to be part of the solution.

Disclaimers:

*We are not statisticians – this data is not revolutionary, nor is it super statistically sound, but we do think it counts for something.

*We are in absolutely no way trying to undermine or delegitimize the success of students from either private schools or public schools.

We would also like to state that this study is meant to look at broader trends in the community. We are extremely happy for successful debaters, schools, and coaches, public or private. We simply believe it’s important to look at trends and take active measures to make debate an accessible activity.

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