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)

Residential Resegregation by Income Continues across America’s Large Metropolitan Areas

In 2011, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon and his Cornell University colleague Kendra Bishoff showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods.  By 2007, fewer families lived in mixed income communities. In a companion study, Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

For half a century, sociologists have correlated family income with students’ test scores—wealthy children scoring higher in aggregate than their peers living in poverty. Reardon’s research helps explain just how how and why poverty and wealth are so significant for children’s outcomes.  The research confirms the impact of segregated neighborhoods on student achievement and accounts for the ways that wealthy families use their money and social capital to cultivate their children.  In his book Our Kids, Robert Putnam describes the significance of Reardon’s research: “In a landmark study, the Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon demonstrated a widening class gap in both math and reading test scores among American kids in recent decades… That gap corresponds, roughly speaking, to the high-income kids getting several more years of schooling than their low-income counterparts.  Moreover, this class gap has been growing within each racial group, while the gaps between racial groups have been narrowing…  By the opening of the twenty-first century, the class gap among students entering kindergarten was two to three times greater than the racial gap.  Reardon’s…. finding is of fundamental importance, because academic achievement, as measured by test scores, is a dominant contributor to class disparities in later outcomes, such as college graduation, incarceration, and adult earnings.  Strikingly Reardon’s analysis also suggests that schools themselves aren’t creating the opportunity gap: the gap is already large by the time children enter kindergarten and, he reports, does not grow appreciably as children progress through school.” (Our Kids, pp. 161-162. Emphasis in the original.)

Reardon and Bishoff continue to update their work on the correlation of growing income inequality in America with growing segregation by income—the rich moving near each other in wealthy enclaves and the families at the very bottom segregated in poor neighborhoods they cannot escape.  In a follow-up report published in 2013, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, Reardon and Bischoff updated their work on residential segregation by income across our nation’s 117 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000).  Now they have once-again updated their findings in The Continuing Increase in Income Segregation, 2007-2012. Again, they study income segregation in 117 large metropolitan areas with populations over 500,000, where, they explain: “By 2012, over one third (34%) of all families lived in either rich or poor neighborhoods, more than double the percentage in 1970.  Over the same time period the proportion living in middle-income neighborhoods declined from 65% to 40%… In smaller metropolitan areas, income segregation is slightly lower, but has increased at the same rate over time.”  Between 2007 and 2012 segregation by income accelerated even in the middle range among working-class, middle-class and upper-middle-class families.

“Income inequality,”according to Reardon and Bishoff, ” is a key driver of income segregation.”  As the family income distribution widens, the absolute differences in income between families at different points in the income distribution grow, making it less likely that lower-income families can afford to live in the same neighborhoods as those with higher incomes.”  “(I)ncome segregation grew faster, on average, in metropolitan areas where income inequality was also rising quickly…. and was associated more with the rising segregation of affluence than the segregation of poverty.” In other words, families with money are moving into exurban enclaves or gentrified neighborhoods.  “Many of the places where income segregation increased the most in the 2007-2012 period were metropolitan areas that prior to 2007 had low to moderate levels of segregation.  In fact, in the metropolitan areas that were most segregated in 2007 (Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT; New York-Wayne-White Plains, NY-NJ; and Philadelphia, PA), income segregation actually declined very slightly from 2007-2012.”  The report ranks the metropolitan areas with the largest increase in income segregation and also those areas with the greatest increase in families living in poor or affluent areas.

The recent update on growing segregation by income from 2007-2012 concludes that, “(I)ncome segregation continued on the long upward trajectory that began in 1980.  During the 2007-2012 period—which spans the start of the Great Recession and the early years of recovery—middle-class, mixed-income neighborhoods became less common as more and more neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and concentrated affluence developed… These trends may be particularly consequential for children.  Neighborhood contexts and their associated resources affect children’s development and well-being, and their opportunities for future social mobility… Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and affluence were once much less common in the U.S., but now are home to more than a third of all families in large metropolitan areas.”

The report ends with a warning not only about the consequences of growing income segregation among the poorest children but also among their isolated affluent counterparts: “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.”

Personal Grit Won’t Do It; We Must Address Structural Inequality

It’s becoming clear that the American Dream is increasingly a myth, that America is not really a meritocracy, and that it’s become virtually impossible to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” these days if you are very poor.  The Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz describes today’s America: “The simple story of America is this: the rich are getting richer, the richest of the rich are getting still richer, the poor are becoming poorer and more numerous, and the middle class is being hollowed out… Disparities in household income are related to disparities in wages and in wealth and income from capital—and inequality in both is increasing.” (The Price of Inequality, 2012, p. 7)

Among poor children, income inequality is reinforced by unequal access to education and our society’s fragmented and uneven attempts to do anything about it.  Sociologist Karl Alexander and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University explain the results of a longitudinal study that has tracked the lifetime trajectory of students who were first graders in Baltimore in 1982.  Alexander and his colleagues remind us that for students they call “the urban disadvantaged,” social mobility has always been lacking and our attempts to assist children sporadic and inadequate: “There is no simple or single solution to children’s academic challenges.  Rather, small influences accumulate to produce large and lasting consequences… We believe that help at strategic points could boost prospects for more of the urban disadvantaged to get ahead through school.  For disadvantaged children, however, the school improvement agenda typically is served a la carte or piecemeal.  Many reforms have been tried and some of them hold great promise, but as a society we have yet to implement those reforms systematically in concert and with a sustained commitment.” Alexander and his colleagues suggest that if we did all of the following and did them systemically, it might make a significant difference: provide high quality preschool; address the residential segregation that defines hypersegregated, hyperpoverty neighborhoods; reduce class size; provide engaging summer and after-school programs; ensure well-qualified, well-prepared and well-compensated teachers in the poorest communities; ensure challenging standards and curricula with instructional scaffolding to ensure that children can achieve what is expected; integrate schools economically; and make classrooms respectful of all cultures and the needs of all kinds of parents. (The Long Shadow, 2014, pp. 178-179).

Sociologist Patrick Sharkey explains that economic inequality too often tracks race: “(B)eing raised in a high-poverty neighborhood is extremely rare for whites… but is the norm for African Americans.  Among children born from 1955 through 1970, only 4 percent of whites were raised in neighborhoods with at least 20 percent poverty, compared to 62 percent of African Americans.  Three out of four white children were raised in neighborhoods with less than 10 percent poverty, compared to just 9 percent of African Americans.  Essentially no white children were raised in neighborhoods with at least 30 percent poverty, but three in ten African Americans were.  These figures reveal that African American children born from the mid-1950s to 1970 were surrounded by poverty to a degree that was virtually nonexistent for whites.”  (Stuck in Place, 2013, pp. 26-27)

Focusing on families in the white middle class during the decades Alexander and Sharkey describe, Robert Putnam explains: “Though it might seem natural to label them ‘self-made,’ in many unnoticed ways they benefited from family and community supports that are nowadays less readily available to kids from such modest  backgrounds.  They grew up in an era when public education and community support for kids from all backgrounds managed to boost a significant number of people up the ladder…. Those supportive institutions, public and private, no longer serve poorer kids so well.”  Putnam notes that today’s inequality makes it difficult for those who are not poor to see and understand how poverty is experienced: “Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives.  So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids.” (Our Kids, 2015, pp 229-230)

Maybe it is because our society is so segregated by economics as well as race, and maybe it is partly partly because older Americans remember the post WWII years when white families at least experienced more social mobility, many seem drawn to books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, the 2012 best seller about saving poor black children through character education.  If overcoming structural poverty seems too difficult and too expensive for our society to undertake,  maybe we can help poor children overcome their disadvantages by teaching grit and determination.  Tough quotes the academic research of Angela Duckworth, who developed a grit scale to measure  students’ determination.  The students with more grit did better at the National Spelling Bee and were less likely to drop out of West Point. How Children Succeed is a feel-good book and its theory has served as the justification for a lot of behaviorist charter schools that focus on toughening children up, but it contains no ideas for ameliorating structural poverty and growing inequality.

Mike Rose, the education writer and professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, just posted a new piece on his own blog (and also as a guest post in Valerie Strauss’s column) decrying “grit” as a solution to educational inequality: “One of the many frustrating things about education policy and practice in our country is the continual search for the magic bullet…. One such bullet is the latest incarnation of character education, particularly the enthrallment with ‘grit,’ a buzz word for perseverance and determination… I worry about the limited success of past attempts at character education and the danger in our pendulum-swing society that we will shift our attention from improving subject matter instruction… And I fear that we will sacrifice policies aimed at reducing poverty for interventions to change the way poor people see the world.”

Rose has also read Angela Duckworth’s research, and he gives Duckworth and her colleagues credit for honesty about the qualifications and limitations of their study; they did not oversell their theory:  “The studies are correlational, so do not demonstrate causality… But Duckworth and her colleagues did something that in retrospect was a brilliant marketing strategy, a master stroke of branding—or re-branding.  Rather than calling their construct ‘perseverance’ or ‘persistence,’ they chose to call it ‘grit.’  Can you think of a name that has more resonance in American culture?  The fighter who is all heart.  The hardscrabble survivor.  True Grit.  The Little Train that Could.  Grit exploded.  New York Times commentators, best-selling journalists, the producers of This American Life, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, educational policy makers and administrators all saw the development of grit as away to improve American education, and more pointedly, to improve the achievement of poor children, who, everyone seemed to assume, lacked grit.”

Rose is certainly not opposed to character traits of discipline and perseverance: “Let me repeat here what I’ve written in every other commentary on grit.   Of course, perseverance is an important characteristic.” He points out, however, that the victims of our latest “grit” fad are the very children who, it is assumed, will be the beneficiaries of programs in character education:  “Regardless of disclaimers, the primary audience for our era’s character education is poor kids.  As I and a host of others have written, a focus on individual characteristics of low-income children can take our attention away from the structural inequalities they face… I realize that what grit advocates want is to help young people better cope with such hardship… But if as a society we are not also working to improve the educational and economic realities these young people face, then we are engaging in a cruel hoax, building aspiration and determination for a world that will not fulfill either.”

Rose concludes: “It is hard to finish what you begin when food and housing are unstable, or when you have three or four teachers in a given year, or when there are few people around who are able to guide and direct you.  It is equally hard to pursue a career with consistency when jobs available to you are low-wage, short-term and vulnerable, and have few if any benefits or protections… Personality psychology by its disciplinary norms concentrates on the individual, but individual traits and qualities, regardless of how they originate and develop, manifest themselves in social and institutional contexts.”  Justice must be systemic; it cannot be achieved one child at a time by schools that emphasize the development of grit.

Robert Putnam’s New Book Makes Us See the Invisible Dynamics of Widening Inequality

Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis is an important book.  It has been criticized a bit by social science reviewers because it doesn’t challenge the power and money behind the politics that have created the problems it describes, but I would guess that Putnam’s purpose is different.  This is a book written to make us see what is invisible to most of us: “Ultimately, growing class segregation across neighborhoods, schools, marriages (and probably also civic associations, workplaces, and friendship circles) means that rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds, removing the stepping-stones to upward mobility—college going classmates or cousins or middle-class neighbors, who might take a working-class kid from the neighborhood under their wing.” (p. 41) The book is written for a popular—not an academic—audience to illuminate the social science research on which it is based.

While most of us will notice a new stadium or a new convention center or revitalization downtown, we are less likely to see that a neighborhood or community is changing demographically and we are likely to be blind to the social dynamics at work or the meaning of the change until perhaps years later.  Putnam turns our attention directly to growing inequality in the institutions that matter to children: the family, the parents’ marriage and parenting style, the school, the neighborhood.

I confess that my own fascination with Our Kids is my interest in public school inequality and our society’s wrong headed approach to addressing achievement gaps.  After all, Putnam’s book is evidence that the great wave of standardized testing, sanctions for so-called “failing” schools, and privatization of schools cannot possibly address the primary cause of achievement gaps: rapidly widening economic inequality and segregation by family income. Putnam explains, “Our contemporary public debate recognizes this problem but assumes it is largely a ‘schools problem.’ On the contrary we have seen that most of the challenges facing poor kids are not caused by schools.” (p 231)  Schools, according to Putnam’s research, are sites where we can observe inequality but not its primary cause: “In fact, all of the factors that we’ve discussed so far in this book—family structure, parenting, childhood development, peer groups, extracurricular opportunities—have contributed to the widening gap in college graduation rates in recent decades, along with the neighborhood and community influences….” (pp. 188-189)

Four years ago the Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon published two studies that startled people watching trends in public school achievement.  Reardon documents that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas 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 demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  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, and is now twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.  Putnam quotes Reardon’s research and then he explains what it means in the daily lives of families and children.

I describe Reardon’s conclusions again and again in this blog, because I think we all have to pay attention, but nobody—until Putnam published Our Kids last week—has figured out how to help people understand the meaning of these statistics. If we live in a metropolitan area, we may realize demographic changes are happening, assuming we are paying close attention, but we very likely won’t understand exactly what’s changing.  If we return to our hometown, we may notice that things have changed, but we are not likely to think about the magnitude of a change such as a factory’s closing, for example, and the meaning of that plant shutdown for the community’s need to shift its economic base and what that might mean for the families, the neighborhoods, and the schools.  That is why my favorite part of the book is Putnam’s first chapter  about the changes Putnam noticed, and subsequently researched, when he returned to his hometown, Port Clinton, Ohio.  This chapter was excerpted in an August 3, 2013 piece by Putnam in the NY Times, Crumbling American Dreams.  Putnam’s reflection on Port Clinton demonstrates what you might find if you were to return to the community where you grew up and assemble the data to show you how times have really changed for the children now living where you spent your own childhood.

Putnam traces widespread widening income inequality within and across all racial and ethnic groups: “The gap corresponds, roughly speaking, to the high-income kids getting several more years of schooling than their low-income counterparts.  Moreover, this class gap has been growing within each racial group, while the gaps between racial groups have been narrowing….” (p. 161) The book illustrates the meaning of the data it presents with detailed profiles of children and adolescents, stories gathered in ethnographic qualitative research conducted by a team led by Jennifer M. Silva.

After chapters that examine what has happened to the family, the school, and the community and after the stories of families in communities across the United States, Putnam asks us to step back to look again at the big picture: “This up-close-and-personal focus runs the risk that we miss the deeper connection between the opportunity gap and growing income inequality. From Port Clinton to Philadelphia, and from Bend (Oregon) to Atlanta to Orange County, economic disparities among the families have been an important part of each story.  In every movement of this composition the deep, throbbing, ominous bass line has been the steady deterioration of the economic circumstances of lower-class families, especially compared to the expanding resources available to upper-class parents.” (p. 227)

The book’s one serious flaw is Putnam’s sketchy understanding of school finance.  He quotes economic studies that allege that school finance disparities are not the cause of achievement gaps but later argues for more teachers and counselors in schools serving children in poverty.  And although he emphasizes the importance of extracurricular activities and the inequality created when students must pay to play, he does not seem to grasp that this trend is related to diminished public dollars invested in schools.  Despite this flaw, however, I urge you to read Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. The book is important because of the clarity by which Putnam traces the tangled and profound ways income inequality shapes academic achievement gaps.

Did You Read Thomas Piketty’s Comments on Public Education?

Thomas Piketty is the French economist and author of the best selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in which he critiques rising income inequality.  Earlier this week in a television interview later reported at SALON.com, Piketty endorses investing in the U.S. public education system—the institutions that serve the 99 percent. He condemns political strategies, specifically those of Jeb Bush, that emphasize competition in an education marketplace.

About Bush’s record on education, Piketty says, “From what I can see he doesn’t want to invest more resources into education.  He just wants more competition… there’s limited evidence that this is working.  And I think most of all what we need is to put more public resources in the education system.  Again, if you look at the kind of school, high school, community college that middle social groups in America have access to, this has nothing to do with the very top schools and universities that some other groups have access to.”

When asked if American economic inequality is the result of a failing education system that ill-prepares students, Piketty blames other factors affecting American workers: “There’s a lot of hypocrisy in the rhetoric of conservatives who condemn inequality while failing to support policies like an increased minimum wage and ramped-up infrastructure spending.” “The minimum wage today is lower than it was 50 years ago, unions are very weak, so you need to increase the minimum wage in this country today.  The views that $7 an hour is the most you can pay low-skilled workers in America today… I think is just wrong — it was more 50 years ago and there was no more unemployment 50 years ago than there is today.”

In the interview Piketty recognizes the importance of education, but he says the idea that education alone can be blamed for America’s current inequality is naively simplistic.  He adds that a society must be willing to pay for quality education. “You need wage policy and you need education policy.  And in order to have adequate education policy, you also need a proper tax policy so that you have the proper public resources to invest in these public services… You cannot say, like many of the Republicans are saying, we can keep cutting tax on these top income groups who have already benefited a lot from growth and globalization over the past 30 years.” “So I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy in this conservative rhetoric about the skill gap and the education gap.  If they are really serious about the skill gap and the education gap, then they cannot at the same time cut tax on the rich.”

Income Inequality Tears the Social Fabric and Undermines School Achievement

Inequality, Unbelievably, Gets Worse,” declared Steven Rattner two weeks ago on the op ed pages of the NY Times.  He points to data released by the Federal Reserve documenting that, “Inflation-adjusted earnings of the bottom 90 percent of Americans fell between 2010 and 2013, with those near the bottom dropping the most.  Meanwhile, incomes in the top decile rose.”  Rattner attributes much of the problem to our tax laws: “And income taxes for the highest-earning Americans have fallen sharply, contributing meaningfully to the income inequality problem.  In 1995, the 400 taxpayers with the biggest incomes paid an average of 30 percent in taxes; by 2009, the tax rate of those Americans had dropped to 20 percent.

Rattner worries that dropping tax rates on the citizens with the greatest capacity to pay are tearing the fabric of our society: “Lower taxes means less for government to spend on programs to help those near the bottom… The United States, which is the only developed country without a national paid parental leave policy, also has no mandated paid holidays or annual vacation; in Europe, workers are guaranteed at least 20 days and as many as 35 days of paid leave.”  Rattner notes that even the International Monetary Fund has “suggested that a more equal distribution of income could… raise the growth rate because of the added access to education, health care and other opportunities.”

When people with the means to pay taxes are excused from that civic responsibility it does mean less spent on public education.  As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continues to remind us, 30 states are, in inflation-adjusted dollars, still spending less on public schools than before the 2008 recession.  There is also substantial evidence that the growing divide between families with means and those in dire need is affecting public school achievement in other ways.

For one thing residential housing patterns track the growing income divide.  Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon, who studies housing segregation, has documented that by 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income.  The strongest trend is the increasing residential isolation of the rich.

Reardon has also demonstrated  that along with growing residential inequality is a rapidly growing income-inequality school achievement gap between the children in richest ten percent and the children in the poorest ten percent, a gap that is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.  Today the income inequality achievement gap is twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.  Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane, who have studied the educational consequences of income inequality add that, “Among children growing up in relatively affluent families, the four-year college graduation rate of those who were teenagers in the mid-1990s was 18 percentage points higher than the rate for those who were teenagers in the late 1970s.  In contrast, among children from low-income families, the graduation rate was only 4 percentage points higher for the later cohort than for the earlier one.”  Duncan and Murnane conclude: “By widening the gap in educational opportunities between children from low-and higher-income families, increasing income inequality jeopardizes the upward socioeconomic mobility that has long held our pluralistic democracy together.  Improving educational outcomes for children growing up in low-income families is therefore critical to the national’s future and requires a combination of policies that support low-income families and measures to improve the quality of schools that low-income children attend.”

In a Thanksgiving message on his blog at Chicago Theological Seminary the Rev. John Thomas, retired general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, lists some of the economic policies that have contributed to growing inequality and that could be adjusted to help those struggling at the bottom of our economy:  “The list of sins is long: Trade policy that moved jobs out of the U.S., refusal to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, deregulation of financial institutions that led, in significant measure, to the Great Recession, stripping rights from public employee unions and scaling back benefits of retirees to pay for the misdeeds of politicians who grossly underfunded pensions, the refusal of policy makers to provide adequate job stimulus or address the housing foreclosure crisis while bailing out large financial institutions, the explosive growth of the influence of money in politics…, the radical inequality of public school funding, tax codes that benefit investors over wage earners, corporations over individuals, the refusal of many states to expand Medicaid, and the continuing assault on the Affordable Care Act…  The descent of the working class into near or complete poverty is no accident.  It is willful policy and willful indifference—private and governmental—and as its corrosive effects creep across our economy the health of our democratic society is increasingly challenged.”

Income Inequality, Educational Inequity, Privatization…  Pittsburgh to Chicago

Two blog posts arrived in my in-box today.  The first is from a young woman, Jessie Ramey, whose blog is called Yinzercation and whose recent post is titled Diane Ravitch Launched, Yinzer-Style.  This sent me, of course to Google and ultimately Wikipedia for a definition: “Yinzer is a 20th century term playing on the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania second-person plural vernacular “yinz.”  This post is about Diane Ravitch’s book launch for Reign of Error on last Monday night at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The event drew a thousand people and involved presentations by several school music groups.  Writes Ms. Ramey, ” Several student leaders from the Westinghouse Bulldogs high-stepping marching band joined Dr. Ravitch on stage to explain what has happened to arts education, music, and band at their high school. Despite the proud Westinghouse legacy that includes many of this country’s jazz greats (think Billy Strayhorn, Al Aaron, Mary Lou Williams and a host of others), the ragtag band has almost no instruments, hasn’t had new uniforms in more than a dozen years, and can’t even afford drumsticks. Yet the students are passionate about holding their band together.”

The second blog post, The Myth of the Level Playing Field,  is from the Rev. John Thomas at Chicago Theological Seminary.  He too writes about public education, describing the scene as he rides his bike to work each morning down Stony Island Parkway, “past two schools within a quarter of a mile of each other.  On one stretch… sits the new Earl Shapiro Hall, a slick, multi-million dollar campus for the early childhood program of the University of Chicago Lab Schools.”  This is the school where President Obama sent his children when he lived in Chicago and where Mayor Rahm Emmanuel now sends his children.  According to Rev. Thomas, “Full day tuition for nursery through grade 5 at the Lab School is $25,300 a year.”

Rev. Thomas also rides his bike past Bret Harte Elementary School, a Chicago public math and science magnet school. Comparing the expenditure per pupil in the two schools, Rev. Thomas writes: “Per pupil spending in the Chicago Public Schools was about $12,000 per student in 2011 before this year’s round of large budget cuts.  While these numbers admittedly compare apples and oranges, the fruit is still rotten.”

Rev. Thomas examines updated research on income inequality recently released by University of California economist, Emmanuel Saez, research documenting that America’s growing inequality is unprecedented—with the top 1 percent controlling 95 percent of real income growth between 2009 and 2012.  “The children skipping to school on the sidewalks along Stony Island have not read Saez’s report,” writes Thomas. “They’re just living it.  The enormous imbalance of privilege will become more and more apparent to the children at Bret Harte while the children at the Lab School will move through lives often shielded from the tough south side neighborhoods where the pitiful scraps of America’s economy are tossed.”

The subject of Ravitch’s new book is the damage being done to public education by policies that encourage privatization and that punish rather than helping public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.  Pittsburgh’s Jessie Ramey describes what she views as the kernel of Ravitch’s new book: “Our pubic schools are public goods, and we must treat them that way…. Public education is a community responsibility, but the driving ideals of privatization—competition, choice, measurement, rank sorting, punishment, efficiencies—undermine that shared obligation.”

Rising Income Inequality Tightly Bound to Rising College Costs

Yesterday the New York Times published news of data about rising income inequality, updated for 2012 by respected economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez.  “The top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s total income in 2012,” the highest level of inequality since data collection began.  The top one percent collected one fifth of total income. “The figures underscore that even after the recession the country remains in a new Gilded Age,” according to the reporter.  The income share of the top one percent of earners recovered the level prior to the Great Recession, reaching 22.5 percent in 2012.

Catherine Hill, president of private Vassar College and a professor of economics, recently published a Washington Post opinion piece charging:  Higher Education’s Biggest Challenge Is Income Inequality.  Writes Hill: “The highest-income families are able and willing to pay the full sticker price.  Schools compete for these students, supplying the services that they desire, which pushes up costs…  But the lagging incomes of families that earn less escalate the need for financial aid.”

Hill questions President Obama’s call on colleges to slow growth in tuition, because cuts in tuition for those who can afford to pay only result in less financial aid for those who cannot afford tuition.  “Lower tuition combined with lower financial aid benefits higher-income students and hurts lower-income students.  As a result it reinforces income inequality.”  Noting that, “The federal government is in the best position to directly address the rise in income inequality,” Hill suggests that the President and Congress create incentives to assist colleges and universities to serve the low income students who require extensive financial aid.

A new study from Pro-Publica and the Chronicle of Higher Education examines the rising cost of attending public colleges and universities, cost increases deriving from tax cuts in many states on top of the lingering effects of the 2008 recession: “Public colleges and universities were generally founded and funded to give students in their states access to an affordable college education… But many public universities, faced with their own financial shortfalls, are increasingly leaving low-income students behind….”  According to ProPublica, between 1996 and 2012, public college and university grants declined for the lowest quartile of families by income: “Public universities have been shifting their aid, giving less to the poorest students and more to the wealthiest.”  Financial constraints cause colleges and universities to augment scarce budgets by giving modest scholarships to several students who can pay the rest of their own tuition instead of granting full rides to the neediest students.

In addition, according to Pro-Publica, colleges are also regularly attempting to boost their rankings in publications like U.S. News and World Report by using financial aid to attract students who score higher on the SAT, especially if these students can also bring in more tuition revenue.  According to Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “The whole system is constantly moving up, going upstream to get better and better students, and get students who can pay.  It all looks great for the press release  But you’re systematically leaving people behind.”