Equitable Access to Quality K-12 Public Education Is Essential to a Strong Middle Class

Courting Educational Equity

The courts cannot fix the educational equity problem. The members of the Supreme Court are well-intentioned and intelligent people. Therefore, it must be very difficult for them to participate in discussions about school integration and equity, knowing that nothing they can do will make any difference in the general quality of education that the children across the country will receive. They can approve all manner of programs for moving and shuffling students or money from school to school, but unless other significant changes in public education are made, the quality of education in the schools involved will not change. As the recent discussions have illustrated yet again, all they can do is attempt to balance access to quality education across ethnic and racial groups. Unless the program results in all of the poorly performing schools showing major improvements, there will still be too many students attending bad schools.

The whole concept of busing was an admission that the public education system was broken and that many neighborhoods had failing schools from which some students must be bussed in order to give them a chance to get a better education. Although ‘busing’ in the traditional sense has largely ceased to exist, it has reared its head again in a new form. The latest version identifies poorly performing schools and puts them through a series of steps — potentially resulting in their closing. The students from the closed schools are assigned (bussed) to other, incrementally better, schools. For the most part, they are not put into great schools. Meanwhile, the community with the closed school has lost a valuable cultural, economic, and social resource — its neighborhood school.

Schools are at the very heart of the community. It begins in elementary schools and continues through high school — evidenced by the large numbers of people who attend Friday night football games to support their local teams. Go to a game and watch the social, cultural, political, educational, and economic (not to mention romantic) activity that occurs there — of course, there is also a football game. The neighborhood school is the gathering place for local businesses and service organizations.

Closing a school disturbs this sense of community. Some have compared this closing process to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s more like determining which people get in the few available lifeboats. In a sense, we need more lifeboats. But even more to the point we need a better ship that isn’t sinking.

If you believe that a person’s intellectual capacity is racially, ethnically, or culturally predetermined, you may as well stop reading at this point. If you don’t believe it, then you can’t be in favor of a program that tacitly accepts some schools will be better than others and seeks equity by balancing access instead of raising quality. If you believe that everyone has the potential for greatness, then you must also want to ensure that every child is nurtured to achieve that greatness. And you should not only want it on moral or ethical grounds; you should also want it on economic grounds. There are many reports on the economic and social benefits of providing equitable access to quality K-12 education. Several of them are quoted in the Chapter 15 of this book. America has some excellent public schools, but that is not enough. America’s future is at risk as long as we continue to allow poor schools to exist.

Over the past couple of decades, some members of the middle class have moved up to the wealthy class. During that same period, many more people have slipped from the middle class to the lower class. And very few people have moved from the lower class up into the middle class. If the normal curve on the graph shows the upper class to the right, then the curve is drifting precipitously to the left. The disparity between the average income levels of the bottom 70% compared to the top 5% is growing at an exponential rate. If you look at wealth instead of income, the combined wealth of the top 1% exceeds the combined wealth of the bottom 95%. The result is the virtual destruction of the Middle Class in America. It is not a sustainable model for the future. The single most important means for re-establishing America’s vibrant Middle Class is providing a quality public education to every child.

How important is it for America to have a strong middle class? The May 18, 2012 issue of Atlantic Magazine printed an article titled, “The 100% Economy: Why the U.S. Needs a Strong Middle Class to Thrive”.

“Widening income inequality helped drive us into the Great Recession and is holding back our recovery. It is tempting to view the stagnation of the middle class and the disappearance of middle-skill jobs as a problem for only some of us. That’s simply untrue. Mounting economic evidence suggests strongly that Hanauer’s[1] argument is correct and is, in fact, fundamental to America’s future. It’s not a do-good argument. It is a selfish one, both for innovators and for every other American counting on the innovator class to power growth for decades to come.

The evidence suggests that the United States needs a vibrant middle class. Not for any of sentimental reasons, but because it’s a very dangerous thing not to have.”[2]

If you have the opportunity to travel, you should visit both developed and undeveloped countries. The most striking element of the third-world or undeveloped countries you will see will be their lack of a middle class. There is a clear upper class and a massive lower class, but virtually no middle class. The resulting poverty and living conditions are frightening. You don’t have to go very far to see it. Try visiting Montego Bay in Jamaica. The tourist areas on and near the beaches are surrounded by high security fences to keep the poor people away from the tourists. There are ‘compounds’ where the upper class live and shanty towns where the rest of the citizens live. There are virtually no middle-class neighborhoods. It is unpleasant to see. More importantly, there is constant civil unrest and occasional outbreaks of violence. Frighteningly, there are signs of those distinctions in America with our gated communities and areas of abject poverty — and yes, occasional outbreaks of violence. We need to turn around the trend that is driving more people from the middle class to the lower class.

In order to strengthen our middle class do we need ‘integrated’ schools, or do we need diverse schools? What’s the difference? There are many forms of diversity, one of which is racial. One of the great strengths of this country is its diversity. However, even in a racially homogenous community, there is great diversity. We don’t need forced integration to achieve diversity. Rather than relieving strife between communities, forced integration exacerbates it. People like the comfort and sense of belonging that comes with a community school and resent any program that disrupts that sense. This statement is not about a racial community. It’s about a geographic community — the neighborhood school. Closing a school results in breaking up neighborhoods. It also creates tension and distrust. Despite this negative impact, some communities close schools or shift the boundaries between schools to achieve some well-intentioned equity goals. Many parents consider the quality of the schools as the major factor in purchasing a home. Imagine their dismay if they make the big step to move to a new home near a good school, only to have their child forced to enroll at another school to achieve some perceived needed balance. The solution is to ensure that every school is a quality school.

Every child must get a great education and we shouldn’t have to close neighborhood schools to provide it. The goal is to improve all of the schools and provide equity through quality rather than closing schools. By making every school in every neighborhood an excellent school, there would be no need to close any of them. The focus should be on improving schools, not closing them.

Education: a debt due from present to future generations. George Peabody

The preceding is from my book on education, Unleashing America’s Greatest Natural Resource, The Minds of Our Children, available on Amazon as a Kindle book. https://www.amazon.com/Unleashing-Americas-Greatest-Natural-Resource-ebook/dp/B00I9KH9PM/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397828566&sr=1-1-fkmr1&keywords=unleashing+America%27s+greatest+natural+resource

If you would prefer a free MS Word version, let me know.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=th3KE_H27bs

[2] Jim Tankersley, The 100% Economy: Why the U.S. Needs a Strong Middle Class to Thrive”., The Atlantic, 05/18/2012 http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/05/the-100-economy-why-the-us-needs-a-strong-middle-class-to-thrive/257385/

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Allan Jones

Allan is a lifetime educator with two daily goals. 1) learn something. 2) Make the world a better place.