Here in the industrialized world’s most economically unequal nation, public education is still held up as the great equalizer — if not of outcome, then of opportunity. Schools are expected to be machines that overcome poverty, low wages, urban decay and budget cuts and somehow singlehandedly level the playing field for the next generation. And if they don’t fully level the playing field, they are at least supposed to act as a counter-force against both racial and economic inequality.
That vision, however, is now under assault by both political parties in America. On the Republican side, the Washington Post reports Mitt Romney just unveiled “a pro-choice, pro-voucher, pro-states-rights education program that seems certain to hasten the privatization of the public education system” completely. On the other side, Wall Street titans in the Democratic Party with zero experience in education policy are marshaling tens of millions of dollars to do much of what Romney aims to do as president – and they often have a willing partner in President Barack “Race to the Top” Obama and various Democratic governors.
Funded by corporate interests who naturally despise organized labor, both sides have demonized teachers’ unions as the primary problem in education — somehow ignoring the fact that most of the best-performing public school systems in America and in the rest of the world are, in fact, unionized (we are never supposed to ask how, if unions are the primary problem, so many unionized schools in America and abroad do so well?). Not surprisingly, these politicians and activists insist they are driven solely by their regard for the nation’s children – and they expect us to ignore the massive amount of money their benefactors (and even the activists personally) stand to make by transforming public education into yet another private profit center. Worse, they ask us also to forget that in the last few years of aggressive “reform” (read: evisceration) of public education, the education gap has actually gotten far worse, with the most highly-touted policies put in place now turning the schoolhouse into yet another catalyst of crushing inequality.
Here are the five most prominent of those policies — and how they threaten to make this country even more economically unequal and racially segregated than ever before.
1. Unequal Funding Formulas
A half century of social science research confirms that factors outside the school — and specifically, poverty — are far more determinative in student achievement than anything that happens inside the school. This is why, as both New York University’s Diane Ravitch and Dissent magazine’s Joanne Barkan note, public schools in America’s wealthiest enclaves consistently rank among the highest achieving in the world.
Knowing that, it stands to reason that schools in the lowest-income areas should receive disproportionately more education funding than schools in high-income areas, so that they can combat the systemic out-of-classroom factors that schools in wealthy neighborhoods don’t face. With this extra money, they might be able to fund the so-called “wraparound” services that even reformers like Geoffrey Canada admit are crucial to the success of public schools in high-poverty locales.
Yet, it’s the other way around. As a 2011 U.S. Department of Education report documented, “many high-poverty schools receive less than their fair share of state and local funding” leaving “students in high-poverty schools with fewer resources than schools attended by their wealthier peers.” This inequity is further exacerbated by local property-tax-based education funding formulas that often generate far more resources for wealthy high-property-value school districts than for destitute low-property-value enclaves. Inequality also intensified by devious new taxpayer-subsidized scholarship programs that, according to the New York Times, “have been twisted to benefit private schools at the expense of the neediest children” in traditional public schools.
Policy-wise, changing such funding formulas to make sure schools in poor areas get more funding than schools in wealthy neighborhoods is fairly straightforward. But, then, the commonsense idea threatens the gated-community ethos of the wealthy and powerful who control our politics. It also fundamentally challenges the core principles of a nation that still likens spreading the wealth to confiscatory socialism. Thus, the idea remains off the table – and consequently the increasingly unequal funding of education now effectively subsidizes a system that is cementing inequality for the long haul.
In practice, that means schools in low-income areas continue to receive comparatively less funding to recruit teachers, upgrade classrooms, reduce class sizes and sustain all the other basics of a good education.