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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Child Poverty Rate Falls Slightly But Poverty Still Casts a Long Shadow

Earlier this week the Census released data for 2013 showing that child poverty fell to approximately 20 percent.  Despite the slight improvement, one in five American children still lives below the federal poverty line of $18,769 for a single-parent family of three.  According to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), “Almost 9 percent of children—6.5 million—were in ‘deeply poor’ families with cash incomes under half of the poverty level (around $9,300 in 2013 for a family of three.)”  Children are far more likely than adults to be poor, and children of color are far more likely to be poor than white children. Last year 38.3 percent of black children were poor and 30.4 percent of Hispanic children were poor, while only 10.7 percent of white children were poor.  According to CLASP’s report, “Children under age three had the highest poverty rates, and the prevalence of poverty was highest during these earliest, most formative years of children’s lives—with potentially lasting consequences for education, health, and other key outcomes.”

Writing for the NY Times on Wednesday, Thomas Edsall examines the issue of how to intervene in the cycle of poverty to help children transcend their parents economic circumstances.  Exploring a well-known Moving to Opportunity study, which tracked whether academic achievement improved for children whose families were given housing vouchers to move to less poor neighborhoods, Edsall explains that moving did not seem to improve the children’s accomplishments at school.  He interviewed Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who points out that flaws in the study may have affected its results.  Wilson notes that while many of the families in the study left public housing, they “moved to segregated neighborhoods nonetheless, far from employment opportunities…. Social conditions were only marginally better than those they had left.”  Edsall also interviewed another Harvard sociologist, Robert Sampson, who explains that “many of the adults in the program had lived in extreme poverty for decades and that the children, who were on average 11 years old when they entered the program, had spent their early years living in adversity.”

Edsall concludes, “Multigenerational poverty is self-evidently more than a question of housing.  It is unlikely to yield to even the best-intentioned one-dimensional approach… We have to figure out a better way to approach intervention, whether it’s education-based or neighborhood-based or both.”

For a deeper exploration of the issues facing children who grow up in poverty, one can turn to a recently published and unusual longitudinal study of the lives of a sizeable group of children in Baltimore.  The authors, sociologists from Johns Hopkins University—Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson—tracked 790 children from 1982 when they entered first grade in twenty elementary schools in Baltimore until they reached adulthood. The children who are the subject of the study in The Long Shadow reside in several poor and working class census tracts.  Year after year the researchers interviewed the children, their families, and their teachers:

“Members of the Youth Panel were six-year-old children when we first entered their lives in 1982 and young adults when we exited in 2006.  Their voices are heard throughout this volume by way of wide-ranging conversations with them during the summers of 1995 and 1996, and in 2000 throughout the year, all well after high school.  These sessions—162 in all—asked members of the sample to reflect on their years growing up and to look ahead to their anticipated futures… The Young Adult Survey (YAS ) commenced in 1998 with 82 percent of the interviews completed that year…. Parents and teachers of the children also are represented.  Parents were interviewed up to eleven times from first grade to eleventh grade and teachers interviewed up to nine times, the last in ninth grade.”  School records were also collected for the study. (The Long Shadow, pp. 15-16)

It is impossible in a short blog post to do justice to this complex and fascinating study.  I urge you to find a copy of The Long Shadow.  These words from the book’s conclusion, however, shed light on the reasons Edsall struggles to find a satisfying solution to the persistence of the shadow of poverty.  As the children in their study grow up, Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson trace the many formative influences that make escaping poverty  so challenging:

“What ultimately determines well-being in adulthood is how young people negotiate the transition to adulthood, which is rooted in resources all the way back to first grade (and from other literatures, before first grade.)  We see that children are launched onto stable trajectories very early in life….  First, the SES of their schools aligns with that of their neighborhoods, and both trace back to the SES of their parents.  This configuration has the children of the urban advantaged trebly advantaged and their lower SES counterparts trebly disadvantaged across the social contexts that bear on their development, and this before they even make it to school.  Second, parents’ plans for their children are in place long before high school, and these plans are strong determinants of their children’s school performance and goals in life….  Parents’ ideas about their children’s future reflect their own social structural locations.  In addition, the foundational school curriculum in the early years is cumulative.  Not surprisingly then, when children of the Baltimore Youth Panel grow up with parents who have less than a high school education, their school careers tend to be foreshortened.  A few do move up by way of college, but just a few.  For the rest, their SES as adults reflects theirs as children” (The Long Shadow, pp. 187-188)