We like the words of conservatives — they focus on what’s good. Progressives make us angry because when advocating change, they tell us what’s bad. Many compound the problem with their tone — they feel, deep down, that what’s wrong never will be fully righted. Robert Reich is an exception:
“This Saturday, May 17, marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling overcoming “separate but equal” school segregation that the Court had approved in 1896. The Brown decision helped fuel the civil rights movement, but it failed to have a lasting effect on school segregation. America’s schools today are almost as segregated as were southern schools before Brown. That’s because the neighborhoods where most black and Latino children now live and attend school are nearly all black and Latino.
We’re segregating geographically by income and race, more dramatically than at any time in the nation’s history. Entire cities are now mostly poor and black or Latino, even though bordered by cities or counties that are largely middle class and white (consider Detroit and its neighbor, Oakland County, Michigan). But as was the case in the 1950s, separate is not equal. In order to integrate our schools we need to integrate our cities and communities. Housing policy is critical to education.”
In fact, it’s hard to see how the problem Reich describes can be overcome under our Constitution, and the problem is broader than he describes. His solution falls short but it is a good basis for discussion because his principal focus always is on a better future.
Our schools are indeed segregated by race but the deeper segregation in our society is by wealth. Schools in poor and affluent white communities look similar because both sets of kids are white. The quality of education, however, is very different. That means so also are the outcomes.
Because almost half the funding for US public schools depends on local taxes, there are inevitable large differences in education between wealthy and impoverished communities. The difference compounds over time because better educated children become higher income adults who choose to live where high property taxes fund good schools for their own children.
Looked at the other way, communities where student poverty is rare have well-funded schools, those where student poverty is rampant get much less funding.
Ours is the only first world nation that funds education based on local wealth. Other nations equalize funding or provide more for students in need. Dutch schools, for example, are funded based on the number of pupils and get almost twice as much funding per minority child and 1.25 times as much per low-income child as per middle-class child. In the US, we do the opposite. Schools for our lower-income and minority students typically receive less funds than those for middle-class white kids.
When our government structure was established by Constitution in the 18th century, most schools were financed by voluntary contributions. By the end of the 19th century most schools were funded with local property taxes. That was OK because people in most communities then had similar standards of living. But urbanization in the 20th century created ever-growing differences between affluent suburbs and poor inner cities. Parents in affluent communities could pay for better schools.
Does that differential funding make a difference? US schools with high funding and few impoverished students got achievement scores comparable to those of Hong Kong, Japan, and other top-scoring countries in a 2001 study by the International Association for the Advancement of Educational Achievement. US schools with the lowest funding and many poor students got achievement scores similar to the worst-scoring nations, Turkey, Jordan, and Iran.
This severe inequality is not likely to change soon. Most parents in affluent communities do not want to pay higher taxes to improve education in poorer communities. They certainly do not want funding to be taken away from their local schools. And in its 1973 San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez ruling, the US Supreme Court found that our Constitution does not require equal funding among school districts. Today’s Court would rule the same way. That decision foreclosed federal remedies for inequitable school funding.
Nevertheless, as pragmatist philosopher and educator John Dewey’s wrote more than a century ago: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must be what the community wants for all its children.”
Most people believe better education leads to a better future. An America where every child and teacher goes to a good school would be better.
I have a dream that we will overcome the obstacles to a better education for all our children. We will get there faster by ranting less about what’s wrong with our institutions, leaders and neighbors and focusing instead on achieving what is better.