As the One Percent Insulates Itself and Buys Political Power, Public Education Suffers

One of the things that has struck me about National Public Radio’s three week series on public school finance equity is that it is providing refreshing widespread coverage about the most necessary of basic subjects: how to fund the schools that serve the mass of children across America.  (This blog covered NPR’s ongoing series yesterday.)  Most of our public education conversation today revolves instead about education governance ideas being hatched by wealthy philanthropists, economists at think tanks supported by philanthropic wealth, and business leaders.

In our increasingly unequal society, institutions are becoming more stratified by class with the public schools (the focus of NPR’s current series) serving poor and middle class children, while elites buy exclusive, private services—a privilege they seek to replicate for what they consider the deserving poor through the expansion of market choice through charter schools. One need only read Rick Perlstein’s stunning new piece on the creation of Chicago school reform by the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago to see how elites are controlling the policies that shape the so-called “public” schools that serve the majority. (This blog covered Perlstein’s article here.)

In a NY Times column yesterday, How the Other Fifth Lives, Thomas B. Edsall describes how those at the top are insulating themselves while shaping the institutions that serve the rest of us.  Edsall examines the updated research of Sean Reardon and Kendra Bishoff, sociologists who have been examining these trends: “The self-segregation of a privileged fifth of the population is changing the American social order and the American political system, creating a self-perpetuating class at the top, which is ever more difficult to break into.”  Summarizing Reardon and Bishoff’s data, Edsall explains: “In hard numbers, the percentage of families with children living in very affluent neighborhoods more than doubled between 1970 and 2012, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent. At the same time, the percentage of families with children living in traditional middle class neighborhoods with median incomes between 80 and 125 percent of the surrounding metropolitan area fell from 64.7 percent in 1970 to 40.5 percent.  (This blog recently covered the updated research of Reardon and Bishoff.)

Edsall quotes Reardon and Bishoff, who worry about the implications for the rest of us of the growing migration of the wealthy to insulated enclaves: “Segregation of affluence not only concentrates income and wealth in a small number of communities, but also concentrates social capital and political power. As a result, any self-interested investment the rich make in their own communities has little chance of ‘spilling over’ to benefit middle-and low-income families. In addition, it is increasingly unlikely that high-income families interact with middle-and low-income families, eroding some of the social empathy that might lead to support for broader public investment in social programs to help the poor and middle class.”  It is also entirely possible that, lacking understanding of their poorer no-longer-neighbors’ lives, the rich might come up with educational policies that make problems worse. (Take another look at Rick Perlstein’s piece on Chicago.)

Edsall notes that between 1972 and 2007, there was “a threefold increase… in top-decile spending on children, an increase that suggests that parents at the top may be investing in ever more high-quality day care and babysitting, private schooling, books and tutoring, and college tuition and fees.” However, the investments the wealthy are making to cultivate their own children are only part of their power.  According to Edsall:  “Political leverage is another factor separating the top 20 percent from the rest of America.  The top quintile is equipped to exercise much more influence over politics and policy than its share of the electorate would suggest.  Although by definition this group represents 20 percent of all Americans, it represents about 30 percent of the electorate, in part because of high turnout levels… Equally or perhaps more important, the affluent dominate the small percentage of the electorate that makes campaign contributions.” Edsall concludes: “The trends at the top and the bottom are undermining cohesive politics, but more important they are undermining social interconnection as they fracture the United States more and more into a class and race hierarchy.”

Marketplace school choice has been the primary prescription of business and philanthropic elites for improving education and most particularly the schools that serve the poor, but such policy fails to address directly the documented impact of poverty on the children who struggle at school, and it glosses over the (however limited) protections democracy has traditionally provided to protect the rights of the vulnerable.  Pauline Lipman, an education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, summarizes one of the serious failures of policy designed by elites: “Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state. In the neoliberal social imaginary, rather than ‘citizens’ with rights, we are consumers of services.  People are ’empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market, such as school choice and private pension investments.  One improves one’s life situation by becoming an ‘entrepreneur of oneself,’ (cultivating the image, persona, resume that enhances one’s competitive position in the marketplace of ‘human capital’).” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 11)

The rush toward market competition in education that has transformed America’s poorest big cities—with the rapid growth of charter schools and the closure of many neighborhood schools— exemplifies the power of the wealthy who are designing policy according to the rules of the business world.  The political philosopher Benjamin Barber captures the power dynamic among the elites who create and the rest of us who may participate in marketplace school choice: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

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