Unifying American Education: Prospects for the Best and Brightest

Thursday, 06 June 2013 13:54 By Ravi Katari, SpeakOut | News Analysis
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Two years ago a sociologist at Stanfordpublished a studywhich found that, concurrent with the widening division of wealth in the US, the standardized testing gap between high-income and low-income students had grown 40% to 50% since the 1960s. Since the education gap between blacks and whites is a common theme in left literature, it is worth noting then that the achievement gap by income is now nearly twice as large. Setting aside the moral questions raised by such a discrepancy, it merits serious consideration from a policy standpoint given the negative impact it has on the national economy. A McKinseyreport published in 2009showed that closing the income achievement gap from 1983 to 1998 would have increased GDP in 2008 from $400 billion to $670 billion. Furthermore, it concluded that "by underutilizing such a large proportion of the country's human potential, the US economy is less rich in skills than it could be" which is the "economic equivalent of a permanent national recession."

What, then, ought we to make of the deficit-ridden city of Chicago thatrecently decidedto shut down 49 public schools, almost all of which arelocated in poor black and Latino neighborhoodsplagued by foreclosures and crime? Mayor Rahm Emanuel claims that shutting down the underutilized schools will free up about $500 million over 10 years and ultimately benefit the education system. Detractors argue that thedecision violates civil rights lawsas it blatantly disadvantages minority communities and students with special needs. Many suspect the move to be less about savings and more about Emanuel's vision of a systembased on charter schools, independent schools funded by public dollars. 

Whatever his motivation may be, the closings should come as no surprise given the current mindset surrounding fiscal cliffs, deficits, cost-savings, and entitlement spending. Here in America, when the going gets tough, the poor get going while the rich stay put. And in the case of Chicago, this motif will have the obvious consequence of exacerbating the widening income education gap. In this context, I cannot help but noticethe inefficienciesof locally-controlled education systems.  Such organization encourages educational segregation as districts with higher tax revenues can afford better schools. 

Similarly, families with advanced means can send their children to private schools. There isn't a more perfect example than Rahm Emanuel himself who came under scrutiny a couple of years ago for getting angry with an interviewer who dared to ask where he would be sending his children to school. As it turned out, the reformer who strongly supports standardized testing for students and teachersdecided to send his three childrento a hyper-elite private school (attended by Obama's children) that eschews his educational philosophy.

Such socioeconomic dissonance in education policy along with current circumstances suggests that perhaps a more unifying approach ought to be considered. In other words, maybe we need a national strategy targeted at unequal schooling rather than local strategies aimed at municipal deficits. One such implementation would be to ban private schools and normalize school districts. 

In the same vein, the current dean of UC Irvine School of Law, Erwin Chemerinsky,proposed this "radical solution"in a 2003 essay and summed up its prospects quite briskly:

"I do not pretend that this is likely to happen. The rich and powerful will perceive that they have far too much to lose if they cannot send their children to private and parochial schools or to separate, wealthy public school systems. A Supreme Court that is untroubled by the current unequal educational system is not about to find a compelling interest in eliminating separate schools. But at the very least, I suggest that the goal should be to maximize the creation of a unitary system of education. With this goal in mind, reforms such as school vouchers are moves in the wrong direction because these reforms allow parents to opt out of public schools, and further frustrate the goal of a unitary system."

Uniformly distributed education has the potential to be doubly beneficial by improving educational outcomes collectively and by enhancing societal equality. To understand the mechanics that would drive these benefits, let's consider Matt Bruenig's short think piece on how to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students. In it, he lists two necessary features:

1) The change must improve educational outcomes

2) Poor kids have to benefit more than the rich kids

The latter requirement makes an acute distinction that emphasizes closing the gap rather than simply improving educational outcomes. In other words, it tacitly acknowledges that across-the-board improvements in education would benefit both categories and thereby propagate the inequality. Furthermore, he correctly expresses concern that progressive innovations are unlikely to be successful since "rich kids will always find a way to gain access to any of the innovations that come out of the education reform movement." 

Instead of improving outcomes, we can consider getting rid of advantages. If we can agree that children and adolescents - more than anyone - are deserving of equality of opportunity, then surely doing away with private schools at the K-12 level is a reasonable hypothetical for examination. Indeed, when we remember that social status and domestic resources have significant bearing on academic performance, it becomes easier to get over the taboo of debating such a radical idea. To determine whether its virtues outweigh its transgressions, we can start by comparing arguments for and against.

Professor Adam Swift, a political theorist and philosopher, argues that rich kids, via private schools, are able to "jump the queue" in the competition for jobs and other elite stations. Taken to be true, such an advantage would violate the Rawlsian principles of equality that we try to adhere to—at least nominally. Swift further argues that this type of class segregation undermines social solidarity along class (and obviously racial) lines that, while a stark reality at the college and professional levels, ought not to exist at such an early age. Given the implications for the labor market, such

"inequalities in education or political influence or legal representation does not merely benefit some while leaving others as well off as they were before...the competitive features of the goods in question give them a zero-sum aspect; the mere fact that some have more worsens the absolute position of those who have less."

If we hold this argument to be true, then it seems to me that any defense of the private system has to, at least, contend with the idea that converting wealth to educational advantage in a child has negative effects for the worse off. Of course, this analysis makes idealistic assumptions about meritocratic differentiation: a point that Professor Elizabeth Anderson brings up. Writing in Theory and Research in Education, Anderson argues that it is difficult to accept the principle that parents should not be permitted to convert money into education because, "In a democratic system, it would tie children's opportunities for development to the educational preferences of the median voter." Her primary assertion against Swift's conclusion is that parents and children would be barred from pursuing what they hold to be good through the expenditure of external resources. Such a solution would impose an unfair burden and distort meritocratic assortment especially for those who value education more than the median voter.

Her claim to unfairness is fair, as it were. But there's no reason for education reformers whose goal is to close the achievement gap to accept it. The benefits of wealth and privilege shouldn't come a the expense of the poor. In any case, levelling the playing field at the K-12 level still leaves plenty of room for relative advantage. Furthermore, if it is so necessary to pursue family-specific conceptions of the good, it can still occur at the level of higher education when the autonomy of post-adolescence takes center stage. I want to emphasize "family-specific" because a fourth-grader has no conception of his/her educational or meritocratic advantages over the poor kid across town. So when Anderson refers to "parents and children who value education much more than the median voter," she's really just referring to the parent.

By high school, differences in motivation and meritocratic talent among students are more clearly delineated. And, at this point, those who want to get ahead in terms of employability can demonstrate their commitment to academic excellence for colleges to see. Of course, academic talent and ambition are influenced by more than just organized education. Even with such an implementation, children with more resources at home will always be at an advantage. Nonetheless, admissions committees would not be able to categorically separate one group of students from another which would be highly beneficial in terms of equality. Theoretically, every student would have access to the same standards by which they are judged.

To illustrate, in the current system, we know that elite universities take much more into account that just motivation and academic merit. Forbes had an article in 2010 that went out of its way to extol the benefits of attending an elite prep school. It made a top twenty list that considered student/faculty ratio, percentage of faculty with advanced degrees, endowment, and the percentage of graduates that went on to Ivy League universities. The author asserts that "This list, while arbitrary, reflects the fact that many parents send their kids to prep school specifically so they can get into the most prestigious universities." Moreover, not only do the prep schools offerluxurious educational facilities and resources, they endow a   brand name stamp of approval that reassure college admissions committees students are suited for hierarchical social structures and have a "unique self-confidence and ease in their exchanges with authority figures."

In other words, elite students are vetted for elite status. The article hasn't the slightest touch of irony. It quotes academic and author Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, "Colleges are not only looking for the best, they are looking for a diverse student body...and prep schools give ample space to be good at something." Even well-roundedness is a luxury item: the tuition for these schools often exceeds $30,000/year.

Classism, however, is usually swept under the rug here in America, among other things. In academics, we prefer surface using markers such as test scores, letters of recommendation, GPA, and extracurricular activities. We hate any deeper than that as it often requires looking in the mirror. The mainstream press reveals thatreactionary commentaryis more common in the UK than in the U.S.: "As [Les] Ebdon himself says, millions of ordinary families believe Oxford and Cambridge ‘are not for the likes of us.' Unfortunately, they are right. A third of all admissions to Oxbridge go to just 100 schools."Another article notesthat "Private education perpetuates a form of ‘social apartheid' and has given rise to a political class drawn from a ‘segregated elite' that does not understand or share the views of most people." Finding terms like "social apartheid" is much less likely in American commentary.

Perhaps it shouldn't be, however, given our civil rights history. Though Chemerinsky, in arecent declarationthat every child should attend public school through high school, recognizes such a proposal to be "unrealistic at this point in American history," he previously compared its substance to that of Brown v. Board of Education in the context of "separate and unequal" education.

Similarly, billionaire Warren Buffet famously pointed out to education activist Michelle Rhee the easiest way to solve the urban education problem, "Make private schools illegal and assign every child to a public school by random lottery." Buffet and Rhee also know that this is a political impossibility, but the tongue-in-cheek quip demonstrates how significant the obstacle posed by educational inequality is to education in general. If Barack Obama's kids and Rahm Emanuel's kids had to attend schools in the same school system as all other children, then the best off wouldn't simply be worse off, the worse off would be overwhelmingly better off (recall the dual effect of socioeconomic separation in education described by Swift above).

To be sure, in this scenario, wealthy families that originally committed resources to private education would likely turn to extracurricular instruction and private lessons to maintain an advantage. Indeed, such alternatives are widespread in Asian countries such as India where many middle class and wealthy families see them as the only way to persist(succeed/keep an edge) in an increasingly competitive global economy. Though these outcomes would be unavoidable, we might agree that it would at least narrow the advantage possessed by the student from a wealthy family and would be a significant step towards equal opportunity.

It is easy to imagine the political clout that would spontaneously appear under the educational reform movement if the resources were distributed equally among all children. Parents who value education more than the median voter but cannot afford private school would be supported by rich counterparts in storming PTA meetings and working to improve educational outcomes. The sudden desegregation of financial resources would be an electoral beacon for politicians. In this case, lobbying for the rich would necessarily entail lobbying for the poor.

Recall that Anderson claims the better off would be burdened by the lesser conception of the good held by the disadvantaged. Nevertheless, in the hypothetical circumstance of a unified public-education-for-all, the lesser off would be forced to engage in higher level academics that would result from the inevitable infrastructural and institutional improvements. This particular consequence would improve educational outcomes for the poor and only for the poor which would tighten the achievement gap.

related commentaryThe Economist arrived at a similar interpretation: "Parents want their children to be surrounded by the best students, and parents with sufficient resources will go to great lengths to make sure that this happens. But poorer students likely benefit from being around better students."

If these conjectures seem far-fetched, take Finland's success story with public education as a case study. The OECD nationmade headlinesfor implementing ahighly progressive educationpolicy while achieving 1stplace in science and 2ndplace in math and reading on a standardized test run by the Program for International Student Assessment. Private and charter schools are virtually non-existent. Public schooling is universally organized and resources are distributed equally.

The Finnish success story is interesting and applicable in this case because it was the product of a very conscious design on a relatively recent time-scale. As recently as the 1980s, Finland'sachievement metrics were unremarkableand outperformed by countries such as the U.S., England, and Germany. Thirty years later, however, the American educational system—once an object of envy all over the world—is worse than unremarkable given how much it spends on education and the fact that it is the richest country in the world. Finland spends proportionately less per pupil and its strongly-unionized teachers are very well compensated. They eschewed our fractured and indifferent educational model for a unified approach that focuses on a Jeffersonian-styled equality so that children can develop freely as their natures dictate.

Instead of advocating a system in which families purchase educational advantages with personal resources and thus propagating inequality, we ought to recognize that a collectively well-rounded and well-educated citizenry is beneficial for society as a whole. Similarly, concern for the educational welfare of all children in Chicago rather than just those in the wealthier neighborhoods would probably do a lot for the city's crime, foreclosures, and budget deficits in the long run.

Regardless, we cannot ignore the portentous implications of the ideas in question, namely getting rid of private schools in an effort to unify public education. In response to such proposals, UCLA Law professor Eugene Volokh emphasizes the "danger that excessive equality arguments pose to liberty." Doing away with private schools in the name of equality would set an alarming precedent for many other institutions. To illustrate his point, he applies the same reasoning to another social institution, namely public defense. He notes that if the wealthy, when prosecuted, were forced to use public defenders, then we might conclude that this would "ensure adequate funding of public defenders; currently they have no incentive to care about funding of public defenders as long as they can hire pricey private criminal defense lawyers." Volokh remains suspicious of this type of justification: "there goes the right to choose your own lawyer, together with the right to choose a school for your child." Taken further, such justification could imply that "people should be limited in the number of books they can own, so that they will have to go to the public library instead, and thus have an incentive to vote to fund the libraries."

Those outcomes are, indeed, rather frightening and consequently demand caution. However, as caveats I don't think that they are very realistic. If the case of Finland tells us anything, it's that practical problems demand practical solutions. Their reforms were not ideological: they simply make sense. Our education system is failing partly because our nation's finances are failing and partly because our model is inefficient. Furthermore, our failing education system is going to have very real economic consequences especially if the case of Chicago becomes the new norm. In America we have a ruling minority and a working majority (the 99%, if you will). If the achievement gap continues to worsen, then so will the wealth gap. In today's global economy, we already know that U.S. elites have no difficulty looking overseas for more qualified employees.

In his book,The Price of Inequality, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz recognizes the dangers of increasing inequality and claims that America's two-class society is beginning toapproximate the third-world model. Citing the fact that only 8%of students at America's elite universities come from households in the bottom 50%, he notes: "There's not much mobility up and down…The chances of someone from the top who doesn't do very well in school are better than someone from the bottom who does well in school." He laments that the unfairness of our system limits its potential by stifling real competition and promoting cronyism: "we've created an economy that is not in accord with the principles of the free market."

I happen to agree with Chemerinsky's assertion that the rich and powerful have too much to lose to ever let private schools become obsolete. Perhaps the importance of this idea lies not in its unlikely implementation but rather as an analytic underscore to a system which propagates the achievement gaps among socioeconomic sectors. Left unaddressed or unexamined, this system is likely to continue down the path of Stiglitz' gloomy forebodings. Moreover, setting aside the implications for our market economy, the moral dilemmas posed by institutional disadvantages are always more visceral when they pertain specifically to children. As John Cook put it in Gawker, Rahm Emanuel "shouldn't be able to buy his kids a better shot at life than his constituents can afford."

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Ravi Katari

Ravi Katari graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in biomedical engineering. He worked as a Medicaid specialist at a health law firm in Washington, DC, before moving to North Carolina to study medicine at Wake Forest University. His work has appeared in Common Dreams and CounterPunch and is also published on his blog.

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