In this Teacher Appreciation Week, Fair Pay Would Show Our Teachers They Really Are Appreciated

In 1962, when my mother taught first grade in Havre, Montana, she felt appreciated as a teacher even though the rule was that she had to take the kids outside for recess unless it was below 15 degrees below zero. (Remember that wind chill as a term hadn’t been invented in those days.) She wasn’t paid particularly well, but school did close for an hour at midday, while everybody went home for lunch. She saw her students’ parents all the time in the grocery store, however, and she knew that her opinions and her expertise were valued.

This week has been formally designated as the 2019 Teacher Appreciation Week. But teachers these days aren’t really appreciated. While the Washington Post reports that, merely to sit on Boeing’s board of directors, Caroline Kennedy and Nikki Haley are paid $324,000 annually in cash and stock to attend a day-long meeting every-other-month, school teachers’ salaries haven’t been keeping up at all.

The Economic Policy Institute’s Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel just released a report about persistent growth in a teacher wage penalty, which reached an all time high in 2018: “(R)elative teacher wages, as well as total compensation—compared with the wages and total compensation of other college graduates—have been eroding for over half a century.  These trends influence the career choices of college students, biasing them against the teaching profession, and also make it difficult to keep current teachers in the classroom.”

Allegretto and Mishel explain the trend: “(W)omen teachers enjoyed a wage premium in 1960, meaning they were paid more than comparably educated and experienced women workers in other fields. By the early 1980s, the wage premium for women teachers had transformed into a wage penalty… The mid-1990s marks the start of a period of sharply eroding teacher weekly wages and an escalating teacher weekly wage penalty.  Average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted for inflation) decreased $21 from 1996-2018, from $1,216 to $1,195 (in 2018 dollars).  In contrast, weekly wages of college graduates rose by $323, from $1,454 to $1,777, over this period.”

And the wage penalty is for both women and men: “The wage premium that women teachers enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s has long been erased…. Our previous research found that in 1960 women teachers earned 14.7 percent more in weekly wages than comparable women workers… And the wage premium for women teachers gradually faded over the 1980s and 1990s, until it was eventually replaced by a large and growing wage penalty in the 2000s and 2010s.  In 2018, women public school teachers were making 15.1 percent less in wages than comparable women workers.  The wage penalty for men teachers is much larger. The weekly wage penalty for men teachers was 17.8 percent in 1979… In 2018, men teaching public school were making 31.5 percent less in wages than comparable men in other professions.” Overall in 2018, the wage penalty for school teachers reached 21.4 percent.

Teachers benefits, on average, are higher than those of workers in other professions.  Allegretto and Mishel explain: “As a result of their growing benefit share of compensation, teachers are enjoying a ‘benefits advantage’ over other professionals… However this benefits advantage has not been enough to offset the growing wage penalty… The bottom line is that the teacher (total) compensation penalty grew by 10.2 percentage points from 1993-2018.”

There is not a lot of mystery behind how the teacher pay gap has grown.  Allegretto and Mishel blame a wave of tax cuts across the states for the revenue shortages that have driven down compensation for teachers: “The erosion of teacher weekly wages relative to weekly wages of other college graduates… reflects state policy decisions rather than the result of revenue challenges brought on by the Great Recession. A recent study… found that most of the 25 states that were still spending less for K-12 education in 2016 than before the recession had also enacted tax cuts between 2008 and 2016.  In fact, eight of the 10 states with the largest reductions in education funding since 2008 were states that had reduced their overall ‘tax effort’—meaning through tax cuts or other measures they were collecting less in taxes relative to their capacity to generate tax revenue. These eight states were Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia.”

Lots of experts including the Economic Policy Institute and the Learning Policy Institute have been tracking the result of extremely difficult teaching conditions in understaffed schools along with low pay for teachers. They have identified what they call the resulting widespread teacher shortage, particularly a shortage of well prepared and experienced teachers.  And they have emphasized the tragedy of increasing churn in the teaching profession as more and more teachers give up and leave the classroom.

But the teacher-blogger, Peter Greene insists we call what is happening something different: “There is no teacher shortage. There’s a slow-motion walkout, a one-by-one exodus, a piecemeal rejection of the terms of employment for educators in 2019… ‘We’ve got a teacher shortage,’ assumes… that there just aren’t enough teachers out there in the world…. That’s where teacher shortage talk takes us—to a search for teacher substitutes. Maybe we can just lower the bar. Only require a college degree in anything at all…  A few hundred students with a ‘mentor’ and a computer would be just as good as one of those teachers that we’re short of, anyway, right?”

Greene defines the problem another way: “Teaching has become such unattractive work that few people want to do it.”  And having defined the problem, he believes there are some ways to address it: “‘Offer them more money’… is certainly an Economics 101 answer… But as the #Red forEd walkouts remind us, money isn’t the whole issue.  Respect. Support.  The tools necessary to do a great job.  Autonomy.  Treating people like actual functioning adults  These are all things that would make teaching jobs far more appealing… There are other factors that make the job less attractive. The incessant focus on testing. The constant stream of new policies crafted by people who couldn’t do a teacher’s job for fifteen minutes. The huge workload, including a constant mountainous river of… paperwork…. the moves to deprofessionalize the work.  The national scale drumbeat of criticism and complaint….”

I believe the collapse in respect for teachers has also been driven by the strategy of the No Child Left Behind Act, which neglected to fund adequate staffing and school improvement and set out to motivate educators with the fear their school would be named “failing” if they could not raise test scores quickly for all children. They were supposed to work harder and smarter. We now know that No Child Left Behind’s demand that all schools could make their students proficient by 2014 didn’t work. Arne Duncan had to waiver states from this requirement to avoid an embarrassing reality: All American schools were going to be branded “failing.”  But today our national education strategy is still driven by the same test-and-punish.

Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz warns us about the dangers of our test-based accountability regime in a 2017 book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. Koretz is an expert on the design and use of standardized testing as the basis for evaluating of schools and schoolteachers. He demonstrates how this strategy unfairly brands teachers as failures when they teach in the schools serving our society’s poorest and most vulnerable children: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

We have been watching a yearlong wave of walkouts by teachers—a state-by-state cry for help from a profession of hard-working, dedicated public servants disgusted with despicable working conditions, the lack of desperately needed services for their students, and insultingly low pay. They have showed us what would support them and their students: smaller classes, more counselors and social workers, school nurses, librarians, a generous and enriched curriculum, and salaries adequate enough to pay the rent for a modest apartment, attract new teachers to the profession, and keep experienced teachers.

In this 2019 Teacher Appreciation Week it is a tragedy that so many state legislatures continue to debate further tax cuts. The situation calls to mind the warning of McMaster University education professor of Henry Giroux: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public…”

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Supreme Court Decision in “Janus v. AFSCME” Will Undermine Teachers Unions and the Common Good

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court released its long anticipated decision in Janus v. AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). The decision undermines workers’ rights by threatening the fiscal viability public sector unions, including teachers unions.

The same issue—union agency (fair share) fees—was heard in 2016 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the court split 4-4, and the issue at the heart of the case was left unresolved.  After President Donald Trump appointed conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, and after the new case of Janus v. AFSCME was appealed to the high court, yesterday’s decision ending fair share fees had been expected.

Yesterday’s 5 to 4 decision was written by Justice Samuel Alito, Jr., joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch.

Yesterday’s decision finds union agency fees to be a violation of First Amendment free speech, and stops the practice of forcing public sector employees, who choose not to join a union but whose job is protected as part of a union contract, to pay a fee to cover the collective bargaining part of the union’s work. Non-members (still covered by their unit’s collective bargaining agreement) have not been paying any fee to cover the political activity of their unions, but they have, until now, been required to pay agency fees to cover bargaining.

A report released last February by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) explains how fair share, agency fees work: “Just like in any democratic institution, when a majority of employees in a bargaining unit choose to be represented by a union, the union then becomes the exclusive bargaining representative of all workers in the unit. The union has a responsibility to represent all workers in the unit, union members and employees who decide not to join the union alike, and the employer has a duty to bargain with the union over employees’ wages and working conditions.  Unions may bargain to include union security agreements, which allow them to collect fair share fees (also known as ‘agency’ fees) from employees who do not join the union but are part of the bargaining unit… Nonmembers’ fair share fees cover the union’s expenses related to collective bargaining and contract administration, but not expenses for political… advocacy…  A union is required to represent a nonmember worker who is mistreated by the employer as the nonmember pursues a costly grievance process, even if it costs the union tens of thousands of dollars. Fair share fees enable the union to charge nonmember workers for the right to access that service if they need it… Workers who choose not to pay union dues also receive the higher wages and benefits that the union negotiates on behalf of its members… Taking away unions’ ability to collect fair share fees—while they are nonetheless required to provide services and representation to nonmembers—would threaten the very essence of unions by weakening their financial stability.”

Weakening public sector unions is part of the far-right corporate political agenda. Political economist Gordon Lafer describes the impact of the the Red-wave 2010 election that turned more than half the states all-Republican: “For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government… Starting in 2011, the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at eliminating public employee unions, or where they remain, strictly limiting their right to bargain… The number of public sector jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back in dozens of states.” (The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time, pp. 44-45)

The Economic Policy Institute report examines the organizations behind the current wave of attacks on unions along with the funders who have underwritten the legal onslaught: “The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Center for Individual Rights, and Liberty Justice Center (an affiliate of the Illinois Policy Institute which has close ties with Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, who has been involved with the Janus case since the beginning) are separate nonprofit organizations, but they share many of the same donors.”  The donors are a who’s who of the extreme right: Donors Trust/Donors Capital Fund, Sarah Sciafe Foundation, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, and Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking.  EPI continues: “How do these groups benefit by limiting workers rights?  Anti-worker policies shift a greater share of economic gains to corporate players and away from ordinary workers… As union membership has fallen over the last few decades, the share of income going to the top 10 percent has steadily increased… The erosion of collective bargaining is a core part of our nation’s problems of wage stagnation and rising inequality.  Workers who are not in a union have much less power to negotiate…”

Writing for The American Prospect, Celine McNicholas and Heidi Shierholz describe what has happened in Wisconsin following an attack on public sector unions led by Governor Scott Walker: “In dollars-and-cents terms, efforts to shrink state and local workforces and reduce public-sector workers’ compensation in order to reduce taxes disproportionately benefit the wealthiest households.  Wisconsin provides an important example of this impact.  Lawmakers there passed $2 billion worth of tax cuts from 2011 to 2014, paid for by the layoffs and wage and benefit cuts of public employees.  Far from benefiting the average taxpayer, fully half of the tax cuts went to the richest 20 percent of the state’s population.  An examination of Wisconsin’s education system reveals negative outcomes following the passage of a law that virtually eliminated collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers.  Far from improving public services after the law passed, teacher turnover accelerated and teacher experience shrank; nearly a quarter of the state’s teachers for the 2015-2016 school year had less than five years of experience, up from one in five… in the 2010-2011 school year.  These data demonstrate that attacks on state and local government workers are likely to result in reductions in the quality of public services on which most state residents depend.  For families who depend on public education, maintaining a stable, experienced education workforce is critical.  And it is the stability and experience of state and local government workers—and the quality of services they provide—that is at stake in the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus.”

While the Janus plaintiff is a member of AFSCME, not a teacher’s union, McNicholas and Shierholz believe the effect of yesterday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court will have perhaps the greatest impact on teachers unions. Public schools are likely to be the institutions most affected simply because of the sheer number of public employees who are educators. Educators comprise 51 percent of all state and local government workers, with elementary and secondary school workers making up 39.9 of all public state and local employees.

McNicholas and Shierholz caution about the overall impact of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision: “This is what is at the core of Janus—whether a group of wealthy donors and corporations will be allowed to rewrite our nation’s rules to serve their own interests at the expense of the public good.  The financial backers of this litigation likely do not rely on public services to educate their children, care for aging parents, or provide support for disabled family members.  Increasingly, the wealthiest interests in this country are able to bypass the state for fundamental services. They exist apart from local communities and divorced from a shared interest in many public services. This results in cases such as Janus in which wealthy, corporate interests look for ways to reduce public spending on services that they don’t need to rely on. These wealthy corporate interests are not just attacking state and local government unions’ ability to protect good, middle-class jobs in public employment—they are also attacking the crucial services on which most Americans depend.”

Major New Report Shows that Charters Are Too Often Parasites Weakening Host School Districts

On Wednesday, The Economic Policy Institute published a comprehensive report by Rutgers economist Bruce Baker, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities.  Reviewing Baker’s report for The American Prospect, Rachel Cohen explains that Baker speaks to the very question that became central in the $34 million political fight that just concluded in Massachusetts, where Question 2—to expand charter schools statewide—went down to resounding defeat.  Opponents of unregulated expansion of charter schools defeated Question 2 by asking: How will charter school expansion affect all of the children including the children who remain in traditional public schools?  Usually instead promoters of charter school growth make their argument based on a very different question: How will expanding charter schools affect the test scores of the relatively few children who leave the public schools to enroll in charter schools?

Cohen reports on her interview with Bruce Baker about his new report: “Baker suggests moving the conversation away from the individualistic, consumer-choice narrative, that market-driven reformers have promoted over the past two decades, and towards one that centers public education as a collective responsibility for communities to provide as efficiently, and equitably, as they can.  In an interview with The Prospect, Baker emphasizes that we need a far better understanding of all the costs and benefits associated with running multiple, competing school systems in a given space—public policy questions that are surprisingly ignored on a regular basis.”

In the new report, Baker questions the economic viability of the charter school model based on what is now 25 years of experience with school choice: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide….  Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves. They are merely policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light. To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.”

Baker grounds his argument in some history: “Since its origins in the early 1990s, the charter school sector has grown to over 6,500 schools serving more than 2.25 million children in 2013.  In some states, the share of children now attending charter schools exceeds 10 percent (for example, Arizona and Colorado), and in select major cities that share exceeds one-third (for example the District of Columbia, Detroit, and New Orleans.”  The vast majority of America’s children and adolescents, 50 million of them, remain in the roughly 90,000 traditional public schools across the states. Baker examines the impact of charter school expansion on the host public school districts that serve the majority of students and that are being affected by the growth of charter schools within their boundaries.  “In this report, the focus is on the host district, the loss of enrollments to charter schools, the loss of revenues to charter schools, and the response of districts as seen through patterns of overhead expenditures.”

Baker credits charter advocates like Paul Hill at the Center on Reinventing Public Education with envisioning a more collaborative “portfolio” model in which “a centralized authority oversees a system of publicly financed schools, both traditional district-operated and independent, charter-operated.” But competition, not collaboration, has come to dominate the expansion of charter schools: “A very different reality of charter school governance… has emerged under state charter school laws—one that presents at least equal likelihood that charters established within districts operate primarily in competition, not cooperation with their host, to serve a finite set of students and draw from a finite pool of resources.  One might characterize this as a parasitic rather than portfolio model—one in which the condition of the host is of little concern to any single charter operator. Such a model emerges because under most state charter laws, locally elected officials—boards of education—have limited control over charter school expansion within their boundaries, or over the resources that must be dedicated to charter schools…. “(S)ome of the more dispersed multiple authorizer governance models have been plagued by weak accountability, financial malfeasance, and persistently low-performing charter operators, coupled with rapid, unfettered, under-regulated growth.”

Baker challenges claims by charter school advocates that the growth of charters has little negative effect on the fiscal viability of the host public school districts: “(N)umerous studies find that charter schools serve fewer students with costly special needs, leaving proportionately more of these children in district schools.” “(T)he assumption that revenue reductions and enrollment shifts cause districts no measurable harm… ignores the structure of operating costs and dynamics of cost and expenditure reduction.”  Baker reminds readers that for several years now, Moody’s Investors Services has been warning about a range of concerns for host urban districts when charters are rapidly expanded.

Choices made that ignore the needs of host public school districts are likely to create formidable barriers to turning back if, for example, “policymakers and the public at large tire of the recent wave of charter expansion.” Baker worries especially about the consequences as school districts lose students to charters and then respond by selling off underutilized buildings for the use of the charter schools: “Capital stock—publicly owned land and buildings—should not be sold off to private entities for lease to charter operators, but rather, centrally managed both to ensure flexibility (options to change course) and to protect the public’s assets (taxpayer interests).  Increasingly, districts… have sold land and buildings to charter operators and related business entities, and now lack sufficient space to serve all children should the charter sector, or any significant portion of it, fail. Districts and state policymakers should not put themselves in a position where the costs of repurchasing land and buildings to serve all eligible children far exceed fiscal capacity and debt limits.”

Baker also worries about shifts in the teacher workforce that frequently accompany rapid charter growth—by which “the teacher workforce has been substantively altered from a career-oriented, professionally trained teacher workforce to a temporary workforce… In some cases, the newly minted teacher workforce is dominated by teachers narrowly trained in specific ‘no excuses’ methods, as charter operators have expanded their reach into the granting of graduate credentials and certification of their own teachers….”

There are also concerns about the protection of students’ rights when schools have been privatized: “Rarely if ever considered in policy  discourse over charter school expansion is whether children and families should be required to trade constitutional or statutory rights for the promise of the possibility of a measurable test score gain.  In fact, the public, including parents and children, is rarely if ever informed of these tradeoffs and does not become aware until an issue arises… Children in low-income and predominantly minority communities are more likely to be asked to make these tradeoffs, while not being told what rights they are trading off.  Concurrently, taxpayers in impoverished, minority communities are disproportionately foregoing their rights to understand where the money goes, in the hierarchical public-private structure of charter schools in their neighborhoods, and increasingly losing control over long-held public assets including land and school facilities, while affluent suburban residents are not being asked to make similar tradeoffs.”

Finally, Baker slams the federal Charter Schools Program, operated by the U.S. Department of Education: “The federal government in particular, in recent years, has poured significant funding into the expansion of chartering in states that have exhibited systemic failures of financial oversight coupled with weak educational outcomes…. The federal government has also, through facilities financing support for charter schools, aided in the transfer of previously publicly held capital assets to private hands, as well as aided in the accumulation of privately held debt to be covered at public expense…. Federal funding for charter expansion generally, or for facilities acquisition, should be put on hold until better parameters can be established for ensuring that these funds advance systemwide goals and protect public interests.”

After voters in Massachusetts were educated about some of these tradeoffs, they voted, by an astounding 63 percent to 37 percent margin, to protect their public school districts. Under a Trump administration with Betsy DeVos—a pro-charter, pro-voucher, pro-competition ideologue—serving as Secretary of Education, it will be up to all of us to ensure that Bruce Baker’s well-documented concerns about the dangers of unregulated expansion of privatized education are better understood by the general public and by our state legislators and members of Congress.

Child Poverty Among Blacks and Hispanics Persists as U.S. Fails to Address Its Causes

Two new reports document very troubling rates of high poverty among children in the United States. As a society we ought to be ashamed that we tolerate devastating child poverty and residential economic segregation without concerted policy strategies to ameliorate challenges for the children.  African American children are most seriously affected.

In the NY Times, Sabrina Tavernise summarizes new data from the Pew Research Center:  “Black children were almost four times as likely as white children to be living in poverty in 2013, a new report has found….  (T)he poverty rate has remained stable for black children, while it fell for Hispanic, white and Asian children, a sign of just how pervasive and stubborn poverty has been for African American children…. About 38.3 percent of black children lived in poverty in 2013, nearly four times the rate for white children, at 10.7 percent.  About 30.4 percent of Hispanic children and 10.1 percent of Asian children live in poverty.  For the first time since the federal government started collecting the data, the number of black children in poverty appears to have overtaken the number of poor white children, even though white children far outnumber black children in the American population…”  The federal poverty rate is currently $23,624 for a family of four.

Reporting that the economy is finally rebounding but that child poverty remains alarmingly high for African American and Hispanic families, the Annie E. Casey Foundation explores the same problem in its 2015 Kids Count Data Book, released earlier this week: “Although new job growth has occurred at all wage levels, it has been disproportionate in low-wage sectors, such as retail and food services, and in some of the lower-wage positions within health care and home care.  And a stagnating federal minimum wage has exacerbated low wages.  During the last three months of 2014, the unemployment rate for whites and Asian Americans was roughly 4.5 percent, compared with a devastating 11 percent for African Americans and 6.7 percent for Latinos…  As of April 2015, 17.6 percent of African American workers and 14.4 percent of Latino workers were jobless or working only part time when they wanted full-time work.” “Compounding this issue, low-wage hourly jobs are increasingly subject to unpredictable and irregular schedules, which makes it difficult for parents to arrange child care and transportation; erratic schedules also lead to volatile incomes.”

The Annie E. Casey Foundation advocates a “two-generation approach” to helping America’s poorest children.  “The best way to facilitate optimal outcomes for today’s children is to address their needs, while providing tools and assistance to their parents.”  Parents need jobs that pay a living wage: “State and federal programs that boost income, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), help individual families a great deal.  But ultimately, we cannot sustain a healthy national economy without more jobs that pay higher wages… Individuals who are willing to work hard should be able to provide for their families.  We don’t need to accept the current proliferation of low-quality jobs as inevitable.”  “Higher pay, paid sick  and family leave, employee input into scheduling, and Unimployment Insurance benefits during temporary spells of unemployment can make a world of difference in the lives of workers and their children by boosting family income, reducing parental stress, and increasing parents’ capacity to invest in their kids”

Residentially concentrated poverty—growing residential segregation by income—has increased significantly according to the new 2015 Kids Count: “One of the most troubling trends for child well-being is that the percentage of children living in concentrated poverty continues to increase.  In 2009, 9 percent of children lived in census tracts where the poverty rate of the total population was 30 percent or more.  That figure rose to 14 percent for the period from 2009-2013.”  Back in 2011, Sean Reardon a sociologist at Stanford University, released massive data reports confirming the connection of school achievement gaps to growing economic inequality and residential patterns becoming rapidly more segregated by income across America’s large metropolitan areas. Reardon documented that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  According to Reardon’s research, the achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

This blog recently covered a new report by Emma Garcia at the Economic Policy Institute that reached exactly the same conclusion as the new Kids Count. Garcia makes concrete suggestions for closing the opportunity gaps among children that exist long before the children reach Kindergarten.  She endorses expanding the affordability, availability and quality of child care and pre-Kindergarten education.  She also advocates improving funding and programming in the public schools in our poorest communities.  But she adds: “The most straightforward way to decrease poverty among children and thus increase the resources available to them is to boost their parents’ incomes” including “policies aimed at increasing  overall wages and employment, especially at the lower rungs of the employment and wage ladders.” “Raising the minimum wage would also help ensure that parents working full-time do not have to rely on public assistance to provide their children with the basic necessities… We could also make those wages go further by increasing the earned income tax credit and child tax credit….  Raising incomes for middle-and low-social class families is key to ensuring their children do not grow up in poverty… Closing education gaps… calls for policies that address…  structural factors that influence a child’s odds of growing up poor.”

Segregation, Poverty and Inequality: What Ravitch Calls the Toxic Mix At School

In her 2013 book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch identifies what she believes are the factors that affect academic achievement: “Segregation is most concentrated in the nation’s cities.  Half of the more than sixteen hundred schools in New York City are more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.  Half of the black students in Chicago and one-third of the black students in New York City attend apartheid schools.  Many black students are doubly segregated, by race and by poverty.”(p. 292)

Several important articles published this week explore the issues of poverty—and the related issue, inequality—and racial segregation, the factors Ravitch calls “the toxic mix.” According to all three writers, we misunderstand our history and hence the issues that plague us today.

In a piece memorializing Nelson Mandela, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute remembers that in South Africa, Mandela believed that deep confession—getting at the truth of the history that makes us who we are—is necessary as the path to reconciliation.  Rothstein asks Americans to be more honest about the factors that have segregated our neighborhoods, our cities, and our public schools.  “One of the worst examples of our historical blindness is the widespread belief that our continued residential racial segregation, North and South, is ‘de facto,’ not the result of explicit government policy but instead the consequence of private prejudice, economic inequality, and personal choice to self-segregate.”  Explaining the policy choices that caused housing and transportation patterns in the half-century after World War II, Rothstein examines high school history textbooks that make it appear instead as though racial segregation has really always been merely a southern phenomenon, and that today we can’t do anything about it.  Our blindness to the truth of our history is dangerous, writes Rothstein, for,  “If we believe that segregation was an unintended byproduct of private forces, it is too easy to say there is little now that can be done about it.”

Two pieces in the NY Times over the weekend raise the issue of another kind of blindness, the blindness to poverty that may easily come with economic privilege.  Shamus Kahn, a Columbia University sociologist explores how our experience shapes the way we explain the world to ourselves: “We can think of elites as selfish power-hungry monsters, or we can think of them as being like others: products of their particular experience and likely to overgeneralize from it.  Elites understand their own world well enough.  Yes, they underestimate the advantages that helped them along the way and overestimate their own contributions to their status.  But they are not wrong to think that for them there is more mobility and growth today than there was a generation ago.  What they do not see (or care to see) is that for others, stagnation is the new normal.”

Princeton economist Paul Krugman’s recent column, Why Inequality Matters, condemns the impact of the kind of attitudes Kahn describes.  Criticizing Washington’s obsession with closing budget deficits through austerity measures like the sequester, cuts to food stamps,  and threats to pare back Social Security and Medicare, Krugman writes: “Surveys of the very wealthy have… shown that they—unlike the general public—consider budget deficits a crucial issue and favor big cuts in safety-net programs.  And sure enough, those elite priorities took over our policy discourse… Even on what may look like purely technocratic issues, class and inequality end up shaping—and distorting—the debate.”

While it might seem that these more abstract commentaries on our deepest assumptions about race and class don’t touch on achievement at school, Diane Ravitch believes that honestly recognizing the long held attitudes that shape today’s inequality and racial segregation will be essential  if our society is to lift academic achievement. Schools cannot by themselves change the life trajectories of their students: “If we mean to conquer educational inequity, we must recognize that the root causes of poor academic performance are segregation and poverty, along with inequitably resourced schools… We know what good schools look like, we know what great education consists of.  We must bring good schools to every district and neighborhood in our nation.” (p. 9)

Apartheid Schooling in America: Federal Education Policy Reflects Poor Understanding of Structural Racism

Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute who has extensively studied the role of poverty in American public school achievement and more recently investigated the role of racial segregation, wrote last week about his recent experience  as a member of a panel of responders to an interview of Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the Diane Rehm Show.  When asked about the significance of integrated public schools, Arne Duncan answered that for himself the experience of growing up in schools with children of other races and ethnicities benefited him personally by preparing him to work comfortably with all kinds of people.

Rothstein pegs Duncan’s answer as typical of the “diversity” argument used to justify racial integration in two well-known affirmative action cases, Bakke and Grutter.  Rothstein declares that last week Arne Duncan failed to demonstrate a grasp of the deeper problem in segregated education:  “When African-American students from impoverished families are concentrated together in racially isolated schools, in racially isolated neighborhoods… the obstacles to these students’ success are most often overwhelming.”

Rothstein correctly challenges Duncan to recognize the damage of what Jonathan Kozol has called “apartheid schooling.”  Rothstein points out that Arne Duncan has been very willing to condition states’ winning  federal Title I competitive grants (through Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and No Child Left Behind waivers) on states’ agreeing to adopt Duncan’s favorite school reforms including the adoption of the Common Core Standards and the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their teachers.  Why not, suggests Rothstein, instead provide federal incentives for suburbs to change zoning ordinances that exclude low- and moderate-income housing?  Why not require states to insist that landlords in all school districts accept Section 8 housing vouchers as a condition for receiving competitive federal education grants?

Rothstein is, of course, challenging Secretary Duncan’s simplistic definition of racism as  a person-to-person matter reflecting our prejudices and biases and whether we have had personal opportunities that make us comfortable with people from different races and ethnicities.  A book of essays, Twenty-First Century Color Lines, published four years ago and edited by Andrew Grant-Thomas and Gary Orfield is among the best resources I know for clarifying issues of racism including a nuanced definition of racism that would perhaps expand Arne Duncan’s approach.

In the third essay, “Structural Racism and Color Lines in the United States,” John Powell and Andrew Grant-Thomas of the Kirwan Institute at the Ohio State University define the layers of racism that pervade our society:  “Where the individual racism view focuses on race-targeted, discretionary treatment, institutional racism speaks to the race-targeted and procedural… dimension of racism.  As institutional racism shifts our focus from the motives and actions of individual people to practices and procedures within an institution, structural racism shifts attention from the singular, intra-institutional setting to inter-institutional arrangements and actions.  ‘Inter-institutional arrangements and interactions’ are what we mean by ‘structures’….  Because Americans often take individual people to be the main vehicles of racism, we generally fail to appreciate the work done by racially inequitable structures…  A society marked by highly interdependent opportunity structures and large, inter-institutional resource disparities will likely be very unequal with respect to the outcomes governed by those institutions and structures.” (122-124)

Rothstein points to examples of the intersection of the many structures that perpetuate separate and unequal education in our society.  If the Secretary of Education were to recognize that housing policy and transportation policy converge with education policy to diminish opportunity, perhaps he could begin to take broader action.

In the conclusion to Twenty-First Century Color Lines, Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA theorizes that today’s accountability-based school reform fails by ignoring structural racism and persistently blaming a range of individuals:  “The basic emphasis in recent decades has been on policies that simply ignore divisions of race, ethnicity, class, and immigrant status and assume that the problem is nothing that relates to those facts….   So since the early 1980s, as poverty and civil rights policies have been reversed, there has been a tidal wave of requirements and test and accountability measures, insistently rooted in the belief that the principal causes of remaining inequality are laxness of teachers and of students and they they can be cured by more demands and harsh sanctions…. On the welfare side the emphasis has been to push very hard to force welfare moms to take any kind of a job….  At the same time the assumption that laxness by police, the courts and the penal system has been responsible for the growth of crimes has been responsible for the growth of crimes committed overwhelmingly by virtually unemployable young high school dropouts, has been responsible for a massive expansion of the policy of incarceration….  The facts that long-term welfare and high dropout rates tend to be issues primarily of families of color living in areas of concentrated poverty, and that crime is concentrated there as well, have been treated as merely incidental or as a sign that there is something wrong with black and Latino communities.” (300)

Orfield continues:  “In the last half century we have built a civilization unique in world history—a vast predominantly suburban society in which each little suburb has the right (and the incentives) to try to extract resources from the city and other communities and to screen out through zoning and housing policies not only poor people but anyone who does not have a relatively high income…. It is a society in which location in certain sectors of suburbia and certain high schools and colleges confers enormous advantages, but where those are rarely available to the growing Latino and African American populations.  The existing trends are toward a society strikingly divided and declining in dangerous ways…” (288)