Want to ‘Fix’ Public Education? Then Fix the Economy!

I was raised to believe in public schools.  My parents taught me that good public schools both improve and unite their communities.**  Moreover, they said, great teachers transform children’s lives by unlocking their potential, which allows them to cast off whatever shackles they had been born into and rise into the middle class and beyond.  Education was liberation, they said, and I embraced the view that schools did not simply ratify the social status a child was born into.

Now, however, I realize that our economic system is so sharply tilted in favor of the privileged that even the best efforts of teachers are not enough to open the doors of opportunity to significant numbers of poor and underprivileged students.

What’s to be done?   Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, politicians in Florida and elsewhere, many Republicans, and ‘Corporate Democrats’ like Cory Booker want to change the way we go to school–by providing vouchers or opening more charter schools.  This approach, which they call ‘choice,’ will not even begin to touch the inequity that pervades education. In fact, I believe these changes would weaken an already endangered system.

It may be helpful to look back to how things were just over a half century ago. As it happens, things have not always been so unfair.

After finishing college in 1964, I taught for two years in a public high school just outside New York City.  I came to admire the energy and commitment of many of my colleagues,  women and men who were in the business of transforming lives and unlocking potential.

After more teaching and two graduate degrees, I began covering education for NPR in 1974, the start of a 41-year career, most of it spent in public school classrooms.  I met countless women and men who dedicated their lives to helping kids grow and move up. I told as many of their stories as I could, in order to make the point that race, class, economic status, parental education, and neighborhood were not destiny.  Public education at its best was a liberating force.

But gradually it dawned on me that my stories were all too exceptional, and that the real story was that far too many hard working young people were not catching a break, not being rewarded for their effort and their accomplishments. For them, The American Dream that they believed in was a hoax.

Make no mistake about it. These are special kids, high-achieving students from the bottom economic quartile who have triumphed against great odds. Just consider the money that is spent on the schools they attended for 12 years.  Sometimes the dollar gap is racial:  School districts where the majority of students enrolled are students of color receive $23 billion less in education funding than predominantly white school districts, despite serving the same number of students – a dramatic discrepancy that underscores the depth of K-12 funding inequities in the U.S.” 

But education’s dollar divide cuts across racial lines.  Basically, the poorest districts–Latino, White, and Black–also have the least-experienced teachers, the worst facilities, the highest rates of teacher turnover and teacher shortages, the most time given over to drill and practice, the fewest Advanced Placement opportunities, and on and on.

Despite this, these students–no doubt inspired and pushed to succeed by their teachers–achieved enough to warrant acceptance into highly selective colleges…..IF those highly desirable colleges were willing to open their doors to students in need of financial aid.

Whoops, that’s a BIG ‘if,’ because most are not.  While more than one-third of all college students qualify for Pell Grants (a reliable proxy for family income), only about 10-15% of the students at our most selective colleges are receiving Pell Grants.  Pell recipients are likely to attend colleges that accept most applicants.  For example, at Cal State University at Merced, about 61% of students are on Pell Grants, and it’s 58% at the University of New Mexico and 44% at Montclair (NJ) State University.   But Pell Grant recipients make up only 15% of the students at Yale, 13% at Duke, and 11% at the University of Chicago.

Poor kids, no matter how qualified, just are not likely to show up in The Ivy League.  Here are some harsh facts from the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce.

“Today’s higher education system is divided into two unequal tracks stratified by race and funding. White students are overrepresented at selective public colleges that are well-funded with high graduation rates, while Blacks and Latinos are funneled into overcrowded and underfunded open-access public colleges with low graduation rates. The gap in funding for instructional and academic support between selective and open-access public colleges has also been growing, which makes the system even more separate and unequal.”

AND:  “Students at selective colleges have an 85 percent chance of graduating, while students at open-access colleges have only a 51 percent chance of graduating.”

AND:  “Selective public colleges spend, on average, almost three times as much per full-time equivalent student on instructional and academic support as open-access public colleges.”

AND: “The combination of racial segregation and widening disparities in spending between public selective and public open-access colleges has exacerbated race-based gaps in educational and economic outcomes. Not all students can access the best public colleges and the benefits they confer. The result is that the public higher education system is another factor that is disproportionately keeping Blacks and Latinos from fulfilling their potential, entering the middle class, and living fully in their time—the basic commitments of a democratic capitalist society.” (emphasis added)

Those who do persist are almost guaranteed to graduate deeply in debt, a circumstance that shapes their life choices.   It’s not just the Pell Grant recipients who are in debt.  Collectively, 44 million men and women–not all of them graduates–owe more than $1.5 trillion, which works out to about $35,000 per debtor.   But chances are that it’s those who started out disadvantaged are still in the same boat, deeper in debt than their privileged counterparts.

However, even if we managed to equalize education spending in public schools and even if all colleges agreed to have a minimum of 20% of their student body be Pell Grant recipients, that would not begin to touch what has gone wrong with our basic economic structure.

Some history: “Up until the early 1980s, an annual minimum-wage income—after adjusting for inflation—was enough to keep a family of two above the poverty line. At its high point in 1968, the minimum wage was high enough for a family of three to be above the poverty line with the earnings of a full-time minimum-wage worker, although it still fell short for a family of four. The falling minimum wage has led to poverty and inequality. Today, at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, working 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year yields an annual income of only $15,080.”

Is that clear?  Back then, One worker earned enough to support a family, meaning that the other adult could choose to be at home with the children.   Today, a worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and putting in a 40-hour week earns $15,000 a year…..and 21 states still use the federal wage as their guide.

I have a friend about my age whose first job–in New York City!–paid enough so he could afford his own apartment in Manhattan.  Contrast that with today’s young graduates, often sharing space with two, three, or four others.

Today the working poor bear the brunt of our unequal system.  “The promise of work is part of the American Dream. Most Americans believe that people who work, especially those working full-time year round, should be earning enough to provide for their families….And the experience of working poverty for most racial/ethnic groups in the U.S., including Whites, has increased since 2000, signifying a disturbing trend in the labor force and a need for policy that ensures all work pays a fair wage.”

While a higher minimum wage would help, the real issue is income/wealth inequality and not education spending, how schools are structured, or the minimum wage.  Since 1969 the number of people in poverty hasn’t changed much, but the share of wealth going to the top one percent has doubled.  And the super-rich, the nation’s highest 0.01 percent and 0.1 percent of income-earners have seen their incomes rise much faster than the rest of the top 1 percent in recent decades.  Right now the richest 0.1% take in 188 times as much as the bottom 90%, a situation that the Trump tax cut only exacerbated.

“In the 1950s, a typical CEO made 20 times the salary of his or her average worker. Last year, CEO pay at an S&P 500 Index firm soared to an average of 361 times more than the average rank-and-file worker, or pay of $13,940,000 a year,” according to recent reports.

Happily, I’m not the only slow learner now catching on.  According to a new Washington Post/NBC poll,  60% of registered voters say the economic system benefits those in power, not all people.  They’re understanding that today’s young generation is all but guaranteed to be the first in our history to earn less than their parents, unless we make some drastic changes.

Of course schools need to change.  Right now, schools are asking the wrong question–“How Smart Are You?”–and then using test scores to provide most of the answer.  And so, despite legions of talented and dedicated teachers, our education system ends up ratifying the social and economic status  that their students entered with.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

We need to allow teachers to ask the more important question about every child–“How Is He or She Smart?”  Asking that question changes the game….as I write about in “Addicted to Reform.”

We do NOT need vouchers, private school choice, or for-profit charter schools.  These are schemes to draw attention away from efforts to defund public education.  That ‘noise’ keeps us from looking at the big picture, the fundamental unfairness of our economy.

But make no mistake about it: We cannot solve public education’s problems without attending to the fundamental unfairness of the American economy.

I say forget “Make America Great Again” (or any other slogan that involves ‘Again.’)  Why not “Make America Play Fair” or “Make America PAY Fair” instead?

Your comments are welcome at themerrowreport.com


** Full disclosure: My parents’ belief in public education did not prevent them from sending me off to boarding school in 9th grade.  In their defense, that’s what their parents had done with them; they had six children living in a 3 1/2 bedroom home; and I was a genuine pain-in-the-neck.


6 thoughts on “Want to ‘Fix’ Public Education? Then Fix the Economy!

  1. Yes, indeed. It’s not just schools that are failing many children, it’s that the society in which the schools function is failing these children. Fixing the schools in isolation from communities and the economy is like trying to improve crop production by more regular watering without paying attention to the soil in which the crops are planted.

    Liked by 1 person

      • John, we agree that schools need to change, and we agree on many of the ways they should be changed. I’d add one other learning strategy to the ones you listed – combining classroom work and community service. Researchers have found many benefits – including helping young people learn that they can make a difference.

        Speaking of making a difference – and going back to the agricultural metaphor – would you agree that there’s no single strategy that farmers use to produce a strong crop? Isn’t important to have quality seeds, ground that has been well prepared, good supply of water & some form of fertilizer, and tending the crops as they grow? (I’ve used this metaphor for decades to help explain why no single strategy is enough to improve learning and teaching).

        Assuming we agree that no single strategy is enough to produce healthy youngsters and health crops, isn’t it fair to say that neither a more just economy or better schools are enough – we need both?

        As an example, today’s St. Paul, Mn. newspaper describes a City Council hearing yesterday that St Paul Public Schools, local charters, city council members and others (including yours truly) worked on for months. The subject was homeless youth and families. Very compelling testimony was presented, and city council members have agreed to continue working with the partners on this.

        It’s an example of how educators, community members, families and students recognize changes are needed in the world outside schools – while continuing to work on improving what happens in schools.


  2. Compounding success of the privatization of public education movement that works to defund public education is housing segregation reflected in continuing segregation of public school experience by class and race. Housing segregation was supported by 60 years of government policies of redlining. Government policies supporting desegregation of housing and desegregation of school enrollment by both class and race is needed for the next 60 years. Economy is unfair but so are the lack of government policies to desegregate housing and public schools.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s