Abandoning Education, the Great Equalizer

To Solve the Problem of Stalled Social Mobility, Look to the Children

Schooled: Kindergarden students in New York City on Read Across America Day this March.
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Schooled: Kindergarden students in New York City on Read Across America Day this March.

By Leonard Fein

Published March 09, 2013, issue of March 15, 2013.
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As we all know, America is the quintessential Land of Opportunity.

It turns out, however, that what we know is wrong — very wrong. As Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote in The New York Times in mid-February, the gap between the American promise and the American reality “could hardly be wider.” That is a sobering assertion, made still more distressing now by the sequestration and its across-the-board cuts. “Today,” Stiglitz wrote, “the United States has less equality of opportunity than almost any other advanced industrial country.”

Specifically, only 58% of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and just 6% born into the bottom fifth move all the way to the top fifth. Economic mobility in the United States is in fact lower than in most of Europe and lower than in all of Scandinavia. Indeed, as Stiglitz writes, “the life prospects of an American are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in almost any other advanced country for which there is data.” And the gap between the relatively affluent and the stagnating middle class grows apace. Stiglitz: “The achievement gap between rich and poor kids born in 2001 was 30 to 40% larger than it was for those born 25 years earlier.”

These data are in some part a consequence of policy choices. So, for example, we have the continuing war against labor unions along with the decline in our manufacturing capacity — and in wages; the financial crisis faced by state colleges and universities; the costs of college tuition and the debt that students therefore accumulate.

Once upon a time, our society decided that all children should be educated through 12th grade at public expense. But completion of 12th grade does not mean what it once did. If that is so, does our society not need to adjust its ambitions and make college as accessible an element of public education as completion of high school used to be? We need to attend not only to post-12th grade educational opportunities, but also to preschool programs of the kind that President Obama endorsed in his inaugural address in January. This is the only way we can begin to move toward genuine equality of opportunity. Without that emphasis, K-3 students from low-income families start their education with an often crippling educational deficit. This is not fanciful rhetoric; it is well-established fact: Know how to read by the end of third grade, and your prospects are bright; don’t know, and you are doomed.

It will be said that our economy cannot, in current circumstances, absorb the considerable costs of pre-K and 12+ expansion. The conventional response to that view is that these costs must be seen as investments, and that even though the return on such investments is typically delayed for many years, we cannot hold this generation of children and young people hostage to tomorrow’s more robust economy. Indeed, the robustness of the future economy depends critically on our current investments. And the argument goes back and forth, in a Congress that has plainly become dysfunctional; as it remains unresolved, the current crop of children and young people languishes.

It is not that Republicans are opposed to educational investment. It is more that for them, there’s the deficit and there’s nothing else. For the Republicans in the House of Representatives, to whom the speaker of the House, John Boehner, has effectively surrendered, “starving the beast” is now scripture.

I am not opposed to passionate principle. But in the case at hand, my concern is not only for the welfare of the children and young people immediately affected, but also for the prospect of ever greater division in our society between the haves and the have-nots. The relatively affluent will find ways to enroll their children in nursery schools, to provide them tutors as necessary and guidance counselors as they plan their post-12th grade experience. And the rest, the stagnant middle class whose incomes have been so battered of late? Tough.

We can do better, and because we can we should. And if that raises the prospect of class warfare, so be it; it’s about time.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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