US: Laying Bare the Economic Inequalities in the American Education System

A review of the book:” Tearing Down the Gates : Confronting the Class Divide in American Education”, by Peter Sacks

The idea that education is the great social leveler in US society is drummed into our heads since kindergarten. Peter Sacks’excellent book, which has just been published in paperback, exposes this myth through a mountain of facts and insightful analysis.

He quotes education policy analyst, Thomas Mortenson: “What is emerging is a postsecondary education opportunity system based on economic class in the United States.” [Economic Segregation of Higher Education Opportunities]

Some key facts:

A student in eighth grade in 1988 whose family was in the lowest socioeconomic quartile had only a 6.9% chance of earning a bachelor’s degree 12 years later and almost 0% chance of earning a master’s degree. They had nearly 50% probability of not going to college at all.

A similar student in the highest socioeconomic quartile had a 51% chance of earning a bachelor’s degree, almost 8.6% chance of earning a master’s degree and a 4.4% probability of not going to college.” [U.S. Department of Education, 2002]

By the 1990s, only 3% of freshmen enrolled at the nation’s 146 most selective institutions came from the lowest socioeconomic quartile, compared to 75% of them who came from the highest socioeconomic quartile. [Century Foundation]

And whether one gets to college really matters in today’s economy. The median income of those with no high school diploma is $21,600, with a high school diploma is $30,800, with a bachelors degree is $49,900, and with a masters degree is $59,500. [Economic Policy Institute]

Over the last 25 years, the gap has widened. In the 1970s 6% of high school graduates from families in lowest income quartile obtained a bachelor’s degree. This figure was also 6% in 2002. For those in upper-middle quartile the figure in the 1970s was 14.9%. Yet by 2002 it had almost doubled to 26.8%. For those in the upper quartile it increased from a massive 40% to 50%. [Mortenson, Postsecondary Education Opportunity, #143]

Particularly stark has been the abandonment of any commitment of the most privileged schools to opening their doors to more working class or poor students. Enrollment of students whose parents had not gone to college fell from 25% in 1971 to 9% in 1990. [Atin, A.; Review of Higher Education, 17, #3]

Through a staggering array of statistics like these, the author demonstrates the massive inequalities in our education system. He also exposes the huge racial disparities, with Africans Americans, Latinos and other racial minorities suffering the worst inequality. But he also shows how these racial inequalities are trumped by the overwhelming class inequalities that often line up alongside these racial inequalities.

Public schools – Private privilege

The author documents how state government and school boards have collaborated with the most privileged layers of society to co-opt the public education system in the interest of private privilege which also benefits whites, over African American, Latinos and other minorities.

He describes in detail the process by which “upper middle class parents pressure schools to create challenging, interesting, and enriched learning experiments exclusively for their children, staffed by the best and most experienced teachers.” This is created through a “tracking and sorting system” of special programs, which they ensure their children attend, and specialized councilors who plan out early admission into college and including special SAT prep classes.

Sacks writes: “The education system shunts culturally and economically disadvantaged kids into classes whose principal mission is to drill into their heads whatever “content” is necessary to pass some state-mandated standardized test… Thus under the guise of social scientific credibility, schools are able, with widely perceived legitimacy, to allocate power and privilege to the already privileged and powerful.”

Another major aspect of inequality is the way in which K-12 education is funded primarily through property taxes. This leads to massively unequal funding of education, and the subseqent quality of the education, depending on the prosperity, or lack or prosperity, of the community.

Shift in Federal Policy on Higher Education

When he signed the Higher Education Act of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson said it would mean “that a high school student senior anywhere in this great land of ours can apply to any college or any university in any of the 50 states and not be turned away because his family is poor.” The author documents in detail the systematic abandonment of the ideal of universal public education over the subsequent 40 years.

The concept of universal education was to be achieved by the federal government funding education based on ‘need’ – i.e. public funding would be directed to help overcome disadvantages based on class or race. But successive Republican and Democratic administrations over the last 35 years have watered down and cut back Pell grants and other such grants. They have systematically replaced grants with loans.

Working class and poor students, already facing financial and cultural obstacles based on their family income and race now also faced the daunting reality of being burdened with debt dependency well into their 30s if they begin the struggle to get into college and get a degree. Is it any wonder that so few make it?

For low-income families at public four-year institutions, net college costs were 42% of family income. For the highest income quartile it was just 10% of family income. [College Board, Trends in College Pricing, 2004] Combining all the different education loans and tax advantages, in 1986 86% of federal aid was need-based. By 2004 this figure had shrunk to 55%. [College Board, 2007]

Sacks sums up this process: “Colleges and universities, as well as government agencies, have made deliberate choices in recent years to enhance opportunities for children born into socially and economically priveleged lives. Those same choices have limited the opportunities for children born without such privelges. Despite all the talk about equal access that progressive leaders of higher education often espouse, they operate the levers of America’s inequality engine, a machine that systematically reproduces social class inequalities.”

Standardized testing and its flaws

Translated into public policy, this has meant rewarding successful schools and punishing so called ‘failing schools’. But the measure of this ‘success’ has been standardized tests embedded in No Child Left Behind [NCLB] and now Obama’s Race to the Top program. He then describes how this policy is camouflaged by what he calls the ‘standards movement.’

Sacks writes: “At its highest levels, the American schools system is among the best in the world because affluent parents ensure their children have access to the best schools, the most experienced teachers, the most well-informed college counselors, and all the best of everything that money can buy, despite the assertion by conservatives that money doesn’t matter when it comes to education.”

With their ‘standards’ policies, Republicans and Democrats have demanded that schools achieve impossibly high standards, but have failed to provide the funds to enable schools that do not have a wealth or ’class’ advantage to succeed.

Sacks cuts to the heart of the issue of class. “The standards movement has failed to recognize that educational inequalities have been a direct result of America’s growing economic divide. Without complementary economic policies that reduce economic inequality between the haves and have-nots, educational policies like No Child Left Behind are tantamount to foolishly running on a treadmill.

“The cultural and financial capital that families provide children at home contributes as much or more to the academic success of schools and children than anything schools themselves could provide alone. And no amount of standards and testing can change that. Even when schools have the intellectual tools, inspired by innovative administrators and teachers who motivate kids to a genuine love of learning, their efforts get beaten down by NCLB’s federally imposed imperative to raise test scores or else.”

The need to address economic inequality

One the most important contributions of this book to the debate on education is the way Sachs has rooted the problems of education within the wider economic system. You cannot solve the growing inequalities and problems in our education system without also addressing these underlying issues of economic disparity, class and a capitalist system falling into deeper and deeper crisis. Any ‘solution’ to the educational crisis has to address the issue of families overwhelmed by poverty, often working massive numbers of hours or juggling two or more jobs, low wages and now the growing crisis of mass unemployment.

Through his energetic implementation of his ‘Race to the Top’ program, Obama has deepened the neo-liberal educational reforms started by the Bush administration (i.e. weaken public schools and push for further privatization of education). Families and teachers are now facing a bi-partisan attack on public education. Failure to conform to impossible ‘standards,’ is being used as a weapon to force the closure of schools in poor and working class neighborhoods by labeling them ‘failing schools.’

Sachs correctly points to the need to address the underlying economic issues if we want to solve the problems in our public schools. That means providing full employment and living wage jobs for all. But with a failing capitalist system, and two corporate parties in control of government, the trends are in the opposite direction – tax cuts and handouts for the rich, and cuts and unemployment for the working class and poor.

Sachs recognizes this when he writes, “when it comes to confronting class questions, the elites in the Democratic Party are often just as willing as the elites in the Republican Party to change the subject.” However, he still looks to reverse the direction of these economic and education policies by creating pressure on the two-party system. He fails to explain the corporate nature of the two major parties, and the subsequent need to break with the Democrats and Republicans and to build an independent political movement and to build a new political party of the working class and poor.

Struggle to transform society

However, he does take steps in this direction. He quotes Martin Luther King: “We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day one must ask the question, ‘why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you begin to question the capitalist economy.” [Speech at Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 1967]

This quote by Martin Luther King correctly points in the need to challenge capitalism if we really want to get to the root of the massive problems facing America today. Sachs correctly points to Martin Luther King’s final campaign to build ”a genuine poor people’s movement that would tear down color and class lines” as the first necessary step to solve these deep societal problems

While he points correctly to the need for a movement that challenges this economic inequality and that challenges capitalism, Sachs does not explain what the alternative society might be. The majority of Americans have no vested interest in the capitalist system that increases inequality by siphoning wealth from the labor of working class people into the bank accounts of the ruling elites.

As the resistance to the neo-liberal attacks on education develops into a full-fledged social movement, it will run into the limits of the capitalist system. Through this struggle many parents, teachers and students will draw the conclusion that to achieve the kind of education system and life opportunities for young people they yearn for, this system will have to be replaced. We believe that a new world is possible – a socialist world. This is where the majority run society, and where major corporations are taken into public hands, and our economic and education policies are decided by the majority, not big corporations whose bottom line is profit, and the interests of a tiny elite.

Public education was won a century ago by working class people demanding that their children also be provided a decent education – not just the children of the wealthy elite. We need to step up to the plate and fight to stop these new corporate robbers taking it away from us under the guise of educational ‘reform’ and fancy names like ‘No Child Left Behind’ or ‘Race to the Top.’

A growing movement against these attacks on public education has emerged in recent years. Most impressive was the first nationally coordinated day of action to defend public education on March 4th. In over 30 states, and most notably in California, students, professors, teachers and education workers came out in protest. High schools students have protested by organizing walkouts this spring in Cleveland, New Jersey, Florida and New York City. A reform caucus in L.A. won the leadership of the teachers’ union and has been battling against layoffs, charter expansions, and cuts for several years.

Perhaps the most advanced struggle for the future of education is taking place in Chicago. For several years a new rank-and-file caucus in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) called CORE has organized and mobilized teachers, parents and students to confront the big business agenda for education in Chicago, dubbed Renaissance 2010. Their actions have successfully prevented a number of school closings. In a run-off election on June 11, CORE was elected to the leadership of the CTU with the president of the slate receiving 60% of the vote.

These struggles need to be a rallying call for the development of a broader national fightback to defeat attempts to further weaken public education, and to expose the class interests behind these calls for ‘reform.’

In the present environment, with both Democratic and Republican parties blaming teachers for the problems of public education and pushing high-stakes testing, rampant charter school expansion and merit pay as the alternative, Sack’s book provides important ammunition to expose this agenda. He correctly points to participation of the Democratic Party in these policies, and points to the problem being rooted in increased inequality caused by capitalism.

Socialist Alternative is organizing campaigns to defend education in our communities. We are looking to unite teachers, parents, students and the wider community in this fightback.

What we fight for:

  • Stop budget cuts and layoffs in education. Save our schools!
  • Stop the focus on high stakes testing.
  • For a massive increase in funding, with additional funding for communities and schools in need.
  • Reduce class sizes, and hire more teachers to ensure every American gets a decent education.
  • For free, high quality education for all from pre-school through college.
  • Tax the rich (i.e. top 1%) to fully fund education.
  • Build a new social and political movement uniting teachers, parents, students and the community to stop these attacks on public education.
  • No support for the Republicans or Democrats, for independent candidates to fight for fully-funded and quality public education.

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July 2010