Tag Archives: public education

Two Countries, Both American

There’s an important new book by Peter Temin, professor emeritus of economics at MIT, titled The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy.  It paints a depressing  portrait of America and the evaporation of what used to be a healthy middle class.

His assertion: America is no longer a single country. Instead, we are two separate nations, and those nations have dramatically different resources, expectations and fates. As a post to the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking put it,

In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology and electronics, the industries that largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies and count themselves lucky to be Americans.

The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.

According to Temin, the two sectors have entirely distinct financial systems, residential options and educational opportunities, and their inhabitants have very different experiences when they get sick or interact with the law.

Worst of all, those in the low-wage sector have no way out. American social/economic mobility may have been real once, but it is a myth today.

A review of the book in the Atlantic was titled “Escaping Poverty Requires Almost Twenty Years with Almost Nothing Going Wrong.”  The reviewer cites Temin’s assertion that racism, abetted by deliberate policy choices, produced these separate nations:

The upper class of FTE workers, who make up just one-fifth of the population, has strategically pushed for policies—such as relatively low minimum wages and business-friendly deregulation—to bolster the economic success of some groups and not others, largely along racial lines. “The choices made in the United States include keeping the low-wage sector quiet by mass incarceration, housing segregation and disenfranchisement.”…

Many cities, which house a disproportionate portion of the black (and increasingly, Latino) population, lack adequate funding for schools. And decrepit infrastructure and lackluster public transit can make it difficult for residents to get out of their communities to places with better educational or work opportunities. Temin argues that these impediments exist by design.

The book does offer a way out– suggestions for remedying the hopelessness of those trapped in low-income America.

He offers five proposals that he says might help the country return to more equal footing. Some are fairly clear levers that many before him have recommending pulling: expanding access to and improving public education (particularly early education), repairing infrastructure, investing less in programs like prisons that oppress poor minorities, and increasing funding for those that can help build social capital and increase economic mobility. But other suggestions of his are more ambitious and involve fundamentally changing the cultural beliefs that have been reinforced over generations. Temin advocates doing away with the belief that private agencies can act in the interest of all citizens in the way that public entities can, and should. His final recommendation is to address systemic racism by reviving the spirit of the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s and 1970s, when civil-rights legislation helped to desegregate schools and give black Americans more political and economic power.

I agree that changing the culture is imperative; but it is also an incredibly slow and difficult process.

If someone knows how, I hope they’ll share….

That Social Safety Net

It may be time to re-conceptualize the social safety net.

Most of the people who refer to a social safety net use the term as shorthand for a variety of so-called “welfare” programs, from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to TANF and other income-support measures. Defining the social safety net in that way—and focusing, as so many Republican political figures do, on support for needy Americans—facilitates criticisms of measures intended to help the poor.

After all, the comfortable ask, why should the prudent and solvent among us have our hard-earned monies taxed to support “those people”?

It’s easy to see the persistent attacks on income-supports for disadvantaged folks as both dishonest and mean-spirited, and most efforts to rebut them tend to revolve around the realities of social supports: the percentages of recipients who are children, elderly and/or disabled, the overwhelming numbers of impoverished Americans who work forty or more hours a week, etc.

We may be missing the forest for the trees.

A “social safety net,” properly conceived, is the web of institutions and services that benefit all members of a given society while building bonds of community and cross-cultural connection. In this broader understanding, the safety net includes public education, public parks, public transportation and other services and amenities available to and used by citizens of all backgrounds and income categories.

Public education is a prime example. Even granting the challenges—the disproportionate resources available to schools serving richer and poorer neighborhoods, the barriers to learning created by poverty—public schools at their best integrate children from different backgrounds and give poor children tools to escape poverty. Public schools, as Benjamin Barber has written, are constitutive of a public.

Common schools create common cultures, and it is hard to escape the suspicion that attacks on public education have been at least partially motivated by that reality. While supporters of charter schools and voucher programs have promoted them as ways of allowing poor children to escape failing schools, the data suggests that most children—including poor children—are better served by schools that remain part of America’s real social safety net.

This point was recently underscored by Thomas Ratliff, a Republican member of the Texas Board of Education—a board not noted for progressive understandings of the role of education. After setting out the comparative data about costs and outcomes achieved by traditional public schools in Texas and those operating via various “privatization” programs, he concluded

When you hear the unending and unsubstantiated rhetoric about “failing public schools” from those that support vouchers or other “competitive” school models, it is important to have the facts. ISDs aren’t perfect, but they graduate more kids, keep more kids from dropping out and get more kids career and college ready than their politically connected competitors. Any claims to the contrary just simply are not supported by the facts and at the end of the day facts matter because these lives matter.

Recognition that “these lives matter” is the hallmark of a society with a capacious understanding of citizenship—both in the sense of who counts as a citizen, and what constitutes the mutual obligations of citizens to one another.

The actual social safety net is not limited to the (grudging and inadequate) financial assistance given to the most disadvantaged in our society. The true safety net consists of the many institutionalized avenues within which the citizens of a nation encounter each other as civic equals, and benefit from membership in a society built upon the recognition that all their lives matter.

Defining the social safety net that way allows us to see that the portion of our taxes used to assist needy fellow-citizens isn’t “forced charity.” It’s our membership dues.

 

 

Market Economy versus Market Society

A recent opinion column from the Lafayette Journal-Gazette caught my eye. Written by Ed Eiler, a former school superintendent, it began

Three recent newsworthy items deserve our attention. The first is a study in the American Educational Research Journal, which concluded rising income inequality in the U.S. is a primary cause of the growing economic segregation of schools. As the gap grows, affluent families are more likely to segregate themselves into enclaves where there are few poor children in the public schools.

The second is a report issued by the Indiana Department of Education that calculated the net increased cost for the state’s education voucher program to be $53.2 million. Some 52 percent of voucher students now have no record of attending a public school.

The final report is one completed by the National Conference of State Legislatures addressing educational reform. The report acknowledges there are no silver bullets and the present efforts at reform have failed. The report recognizes the importance of having all stakeholders be a part of the process of improving our schools.

Why does any of this matter? All of these reports can be tied to the effort to privatize education.

Eiler then references a book by Michael Sandel, who makes an important distinction between markets that deal with material goods, which he finds “valuable and productive” and markets operating  in areas where they do not belong, in our civic lives.

Should educational opportunities be made available based upon the ability to pay? Should we pay children to read books or get good grades? Should people receive health care on the basis of their ability to pay? Should access to politicians and the political system be governed by those who have more money? Should legal representation be affected by one’s financial circumstances? Should you be able to pay someone else to take your place in serving your country? Should citizenship be for sale?

Sandel asserts markets may in fact undermine or crowd out non-market attitudes and values worth caring about and change the character of some goods and social practices. He writes that the most corrosive effect of markets is the loss of our commonality – “we’re all in it together.”

This argument underscores what I have sometimes called a “category mistake.” I’ve previously written that our misguided and unsuccessful drug war is a consequence of placing drug abuse in the category of criminal justice rather than public health. Similarly, too many school reform efforts categorize education as another consumer good, rather than a public necessity.

Of course we all want our children to receive educations that will enable them to compete for jobs and status, just as we all want university graduates to find gainful employment. But the purpose of education goes far beyond those “consumer” goals. Genuine education is not job training; it both enriches the lives of recipients (a market good) and creates good citizens (a social good). As political scientist Benjamin Barber has written, public education is constitutive of a public.

So long as we think of education as a consumer good, a “product” we purchase for our children, we will continue to have affluent families segregate themselves from poorer communities, and we will continue to exacerbate inequality.

Public education is–and must be categorized as–a public good. And an exceptionally important one. Properly understood, it is not something that private markets can provide.

Self-Interest Properly Understood–and Taxes

Since at least the late 1980s, policy disputes in the United States have largely revolved around the actual and perceived deficiencies of government. It has been an article of faith among self-styled fiscal conservatives that wasteful state and federal governments are imposing excessive and unnecessary tax burdens on the American public.

Engaging in this line of argumentation is particularly  appealing to candidates for public office, since it plays to widespread resentment of the obligation to pay taxes while avoiding the pesky need to identify specific instances of the “fraud and waste” that are widely supposed to exist.

There are certainly situations where tax dollars are misspent. Most of those situations involve poor management practices, since voters tend to base their support for political candidates on ideology rather than perceived managerial competence. But more often than not, assertions of “waste” are based upon disagreement with something that government is doing–a belief that services being provided or programs being supported are unnecessary (especially when such services or programs are primarily seen to benefit others).

What government should do, and how it should fund what it does, are persistent and entirely legitimate issues. The problem is, too many of us have imbibed the Kool-aid; we want the services, we want to live in thriving communities with a good quality of life, but we don’t want to pay for the services and amenities necessary to produce that quality of life.

Worse, we frequently don’t recognize the ways in which we benefit even from government programs and services we don’t personally use. A couple of examples:

When voters are asked to support bond issues or tax increases for public education, people who do not have children in the system (usually a majority of those voting) often oppose the measures, because they see no personal benefit, no immediate “return on investment.” What they fail to recognize is that the quality of local public education systems affects their property values, enhances (or diminishes) job creation efforts, and makes their communities safer and more attractive. In the long run, good schools are in their personal self-interest.

Similar metrics apply to taxes for public transportation. Even people who will never use transit benefit personally from public transportation systems that reduce congestion, improve air quality, connect low-income workers to their places of employment, and improve mobility for the elderly and disabled.

Even people who care only about minimizing their personal tax burden will ultimately benefit, because long-term, the ability to hold down tax rates  (especially here in Indiana, where constitutionally-imposed tax caps severely restrict municipal governments’ revenue options) will depend upon a city’s ability to grow its tax base–its ability to entice people to move in, buy homes and start businesses. Cities that successfully market themselves do so based upon quality of life measures–good schools, well-maintained parks, excellent public transportation.

Often, sound investments take time to generate returns. That’s particularly true of investments in our communities.

Sometimes, “self-interest properly understood” (as De Tocqueville noted many years ago) is the opposite of immediate gratification. That doesn’t mean the investments aren’t necessary and worthwhile.

 

Diversity and Distrust Revisited

Thanks primarily to the wackier GOP candidates for President (okay, that’s virtually all of them), we’re seeing a recurrence of socially divisive arguments about “political correctness,” abortion, religion and immigration–and an elevation, in unfortunate and not-so-veiled forms, of America’s racist impulses.

I was pondering our current unlovely public discourse, with its rejection of “otherness,” when my eyes fell on my bookshelf, and on Stephen Macedo’s 2000 book, Diversity and Distrust. The book was a meditation on the important civic role played by public schools in multi-ethnic societies like ours. I leafed through it to see where I’d highlighted observations (something that’s harder to do on a Kindle app), and I thought I’d share a few of them:

American public schools have been, in many ways, where the tension between diversity and the felt need to promote shared values has played out most dramatically. This institution has, from its inception, been the principal direct public instrument for creating a shared political culture amid religious, racial, ethnic and class diversity.

..some of the the most basic and widely discussed conflicts around public schools have been the consequence of religious opposition to basic civic ideals.

The [common/public school] was meant to pursue a novel set of civic ends: consolidation under public aegises was essential to the institution’s civic agenda.

The proponents of many orthodoxies, especially perhaps integral and totalistic belief systems, will not be happy with educational institutions that include all of the children within a pluralistic community. We cannot pursue shared civic ends without making it harder for the proponents of some moral and religious doctrines to perpetuate their views.

Macedo’s book was a full-throated–and persuasive– defense of the importance of public education in a diverse democratic country.

In Indiana, we’ve turned our backs on the civic mission of the schools, bowing to the demands of those who value particularist dogma, privatization, interest group politics and profits above the need to create and perpetuate a common American culture based upon our particular (and yes, in that sense “exceptional”) historical and legal commitments.