Several articles of late have emphasized that “the 1%” aren’t the real problem with the effects of inequality in our country, it’s the .01%.
Progressive economist Robert Reich’s essay titled ” If you Want to Know What’s Happened to Our Democracy, Follow the Richest .01%”, describes the effects of inequality in stark terms. After providing lots of statistical information detailing how wide the spread is between the 16,000 people who control 11% of the total wealth in our country, and a description of how this is affecting the debts of the bottom 90%, Reich outlines the political reasons for why we should care about this:
…the top .01 percent have also been investing their money in politics. And these investments have been changing the game.
In the 2012 election cycle (the last for which we have good data) donations from the top .01 accounted for over 40 percent of all campaign contributions, according to a study by Professors Adam Bonica, Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal.
This is a huge increase from 1980, when the top .01 accounted for ten percent of total campaign contributions….
All this money has flowed to Democrats as well as Republicans.
In fact, Democrats have increasingly relied on it. In the 2012 election cycle, the top .01 percent’s donations to Democrats were more than four times larger than all labor union donations to Democrats put together.
(And) their political investments have paid off in the form of lower taxes on themselves and their businesses, subsidies for their corporations, government bailouts, federal prosecutions that end in settlements where companies don’t affirm or deny the facts and where executives don’t go to jail, watered-down regulations, and non-enforcement of antitrust laws.
Since the top .01 began investing big time in politics, corporate profits and the stock market have risen to record levels. That’s enlarged the wealth of the richest .01 percent by an average of 7.8 percent a year since the mid-1980s.
But the bottom 90 percent don’t own many shares of stock. They rely on wages, which have been trending downward. And for some reason, politicians don’t seem particularly intent on reversing this trend.
If you want to know what’s happened to the American economy, follow the money. That will lead you to the richest .01 percent.
And if you want to know what’s happened to our democracy, follow the richest .01 percent. They’ll lead you to the politicians who have been selling our democracy.
But why should advocates of public education care about this increasing inequality? An Inside Philanthropy blog post titled “Be Afraid: The Five Scariest Trends in Philanthropy” by David Callahan outlines five reasons:
- The growing push to convert wealth into power: (see Reich’s article and this quote from Callahan offers an example in public education: “Look at nearly any sector of U.S. society, and you’ll find private funders wielding growing power. Most dramatic has been the reshaping of public education by philanthropists like Gates and the Waltons, but the footprint of private money has also grown when it comes to healthcare, the environment, the economy, social policy, science, and the arts.
Whether you agree or disagree with the specific views pushed by private funders, you’ve got to be disturbed by the growing army of hands-on mega donors and foundations that seems to get more clever every year about converting their money into societal influence. Love it or hate it, the Common Core is a great example: In effect, private funders are helping determine how tens of millions of kids will be educated for years to come. And to think that we once saw public education as America’s most democratic institution!”
- How philanthropic dollars have become another form of political money: (see Reich’s article for lots of examples)
- The decline of the public sector relative to private funders: This means that as public funding for schools diminishes and schools are privatized the wealth trickles UPWARD instead of ACROSS the workforce. As a result, the extraordinarily wealthy individuals (e.g. philanthropists) who make “generous donations” to public schools have more and more influence in how schools spend money.
- The rise of the know-it-all funder: See Bill Gates and any hedge fund manager or technology squillionaire who provides a “generous donation” to schools contingent on the implementation of a program they are certain will be a game-changer. Callahan describes how this is playing out in public education: “In an age of hands-on living mega donors, the possibilities for big screwups are self-evident and we’ve seen some doozies so far—like, say, turning urban school districts upside down to create small high schools and then realizing that this idea wasn’t as brilliant as MS-DOS.”
- A rising flood of anonymous money: This is playing out as dark money flows into elections for State and County Superintendents, governors, and various referenda on issues like the elimination of tenure, school funding, etc.
Inequality matters to public education and it matters to democracy. Here’s hoping that the issue gets an airing in 2016… but as long as the richest .01% buy and own our political leaders and buy and control the advertising that is the basis for voters’ decision making having a dialog on this issue will be difficult.
Thomas Edsall’s column today, “Republicans Sure Love to Hate Unions”, describes the systematic efforts of the Republican party to reduce the power of labor unions and, in so doing, diminish the power of the Democrats who benefit from the support of unions. But based on the content of his column, it could just have easily been titled “Neither Party Loves Unions” since he provides lots of evidence that the Democrats are ignoring union issues or— even worse, taking union support for granted— or worse yet, buying into an anti-union stance themselves. The article provided evidence of all three possibilities, noting that the Obamacare penalty for “Cadillac” health care provisions will hurt union members more than anyone else.
As I read this, though, I couldn’t help but notice that in some cases the unions are wounding themselves. In public schools, unions have adopted some of the concepts of their brethren in the auto industry (and, to be fair, Boards have adopted the same concepts in framing their bargaining positions). One particularly short-sighted approach to achieving settlements that enable management to reduce costs while simultaneously enabling veteran union members to get wage increases and retain benefits is to offer lower pay scales and fewer benefits to those to be hired in the future. As these bi-furcated agreements phase in, the newer employees have no reason to support the union and they often harbor resentments against their seasoned partners, resentments that manifest themselves in either NOT supporting the Democratic candidates chosen by the union or by staying home. This lack of enthusiasm for the union is, I believe, an underlying factor in the diminishing number of union members, especially as laws are passed that do not require everyone to pay union dues.
These bifurcated agreements also drive down wages and benefits, and those lower wages and benefits are a drag on the economy. By agreeing to contracts that undercut wages of new hires the unions, then, are helping the pro-business candidates get elected… thereby closing a vicious cycle.
Friday’s NYTimes featured a lengthy article by Gina Bellafonte titled “How Can Community Colleges Get a Piece of the Billions that Donors Give to Higher Education?”. The article described the plight of LaGuardia Community College using its experiences to described the typically underfunded community college. It offered heartwarming stories of successful graduates who went on to earn college degrees against great odds, contrasted the fund raising apparatus at LaGuardia (a staff of four) with that of Williams College (a staff of 50), and offered several ideas of ways community colleges might “…get a piece” of the billions donors offer to elite colleges. But the primary answer to the question about where money is being donated was embedded in this sentence:
In 2012, more than twice as much money — $297 million — was awarded to charter schools from the country’s largest foundations as was given to community colleges, even though two-year colleges educate nearly four times as many students.
Those charter school donors are often characterized as wanting to help “reform” public education, to provide students raised in poverty with a means of getting a better education so they can get a better life. But there is much evidence that their real intention is to privatize the operation of a public enterprise that is viewed as a potential cash cow— a sector ripe for profiteering.
There was a time, not so long ago, that students who could not afford to go away to college could enroll in a nearby community college and work part time to earn enough money to complete four years of college with no debt. There was a time, not so long ago, when public schools were viewed as essential linchpins of the urban neighborhoods and small towns across the country. There was a time, not so long ago, when public schools held occasional bake sales to raise money to give teachers extra supplies instead of perpetually raising money to fund additional staff members. That time still exists in many school districts across this country: the ones that serve affluent communities. Elite public schools in elite communities have a tax base that perpetuates their standing. Their high school graduates seldom attend community colleges because their high school has provided them with a robust course of studies, with ample academic support if they struggle in school, and guidance services to help them find a school that matches their skill sets. And most importantly, the graduates of elite high schools have the financial wherewithal to go directly to college. Until those in elite communities are willing to pay higher taxes so that children raised in poverty have the same opportunities we will continue to have the economic divide in place today… and donating to for-profit charter schools is no substitute for supporting the broad-based funding of public education.
Tom Wheeler, the FCC Chairman, announced his intention today to advocate a small surcharge to phone bills to help increase the funding for broadband in public schools. In the NYTimes article on Wheeler’s recommendation, tech writer Edward Wyatt reports that one of the goals is to address inequities in the availability of online services for schools:
Greater spending for Wi-Fi and fiber-optic lines is needed, F.C.C. officials said, because schools serving more than 40 million students say they do not have broadband connections that are fast enough to take advantage of the most robust digital learning features.
Imbalances in infrastructure affect some schools far more than others, however. Seven in 10 rural districts say none of their schools can meet high-speed Internet connectivity targets today. Schools in affluent areas are three times more likely to meet speed targets as those in low-income areas, the F.C.C. says.
As I’ve written frequently in this blog, having schools connected to high speed internet is a necessary but insufficient step: each and every household needs to be connected to broadband so that each and every student and teacher has “…broadband connections that are fast enough to take advantage of the most robust digital learning features”. I daresay that students in affluent households are MORE than three times likely to have broadband than children raised in poverty and it is also highly probable that teachers do not have access to broadband at home.
Education policy makers and politicians need to understand that we will never be able to completely transform our current factory model of learning until we make high speed internet as readily available as electricity and water. Everyone agrees we are living in an Information Age and yet we continue to deny the stream of information to millions of people in our country and wonder why we are “falling behind” in the global economy. Increasing spending on broadband is a good first step. Making broadband a utility and spending money to make it available to all is an essential next step.
When I was researching for the series of posts I wrote outlining a recommended platform for President, I determined that all but five states in the union had at one time been entangled in a lawsuit based on inequities in school funding. Earlier this week, six school districts, seven parents, and two statewide organizations filed a lawsuit against the State to change it’s funding formulas. As reported in Common Dreams post by Deirdre Fulton, the complaint states that:
“…state officials have adopted an irrational and inequitable school financing arrangement that drastically underfunds school districts across the Commonwealth and discriminates against children on the basis of the taxable property and household incomes in their districts.”
Among the districts filing the lawsuit is William Penn District, where I worked as Assistant HS Principal from 1975-78. At that time the school board had a critical mass of parochial school parents whose primary goal was to suppress property taxes based on the logic that they were not receiving any benefit from the schools and should therefore not be required to pay as much. Furthermore, at that time the William Penn District was a recently consolidated district. This meant that the affluent towns in the new district were effectively underwriting the budgets of the less affluent communities, and this redistribution of school funds rubbed some of the taxpayers the wrong way. Those dynamics are at play in PA to this day and are compounded by the rise of the Tea Party wing of the Republican party and the “reform” movement that seeks to convert as many schools as possible into for-profit charters. Any effort to redistribute funds to less affluent districts is characterized by conservative lawmakers as “throwing money at the problem” or, worse yet, kowtowing to teachers unions by giving undeserving and greedy teachers higher salaries and better benefits.
One lengthy quote from Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights underscores the reality that this is NOT a PA problem:
Pennsylvania is not alone in denying adequate funding for its students, especially those in high poverty school districts. But this case shows that Pennsylvania is one of the worst offenders in the nation. The disparity in education resources has created an educational caste system that the Commonwealth must eliminate. We will continue to take action to vindicate the state constitutional rights of all students to an education that prepares them for citizenship and the workforce. We also call on the U.S. Department of Education to investigate Pennsylvania for the glaring inequity in essential education resources in schools serving poor and minority school children and to take decisive corrective action on the findings.
As noted above and in my earlier post on a proposed education platform for 2016, those seeking changes to funding in the courts have often prevailed but legislatures have not responded to the court orders in a timely fashion. In NH, for example, two lawsuits have mandated changes in State funding and to date only marginal changes have occurred and they are insufficient. Given this reality, I offered this idea as a plank to the 2016 presidential race:
- Redirect all Federal funds to constitutionally underfunded districts: Over the past several decades all but five states have been sued over inequities in school funding. At the same time federal funds have been allocated to every district in the country, even the most affluent. If elected I will take steps to see that in states where legislatures have not responded to court decisions calling for changes to the funding systems, all federal funds, including funds for handicapped children in affluent districts, will be redirected to those districts that state courts identify as being short-changed. If State legislatures fail to provide every child with an equal opportunity, the federal government has a responsibility to do so.
I believe the federal government SHOULD intercede meaningfully when the state fails to provide equitable funding and one way they could do so is to redistribute ALL their funds to those districts who sue for equity but fail to receive the relief the courts provided. Doing so would shine a bright light on this issue and compel voters to get their legislators to take action so that federal funds could be restored. If there is are no consequences to the state legislature for ignoring court orders the districts serving children in poverty will continue to get short-changed.
A paragraph at the end of a post by Diane Ravitch yesterday triggered an insight: the “reformers” are true believers and true believers are not persuaded by facts. They need to have their core beliefs undercut by experience. Here’s what I wrote in the comment section:
“Arne Duncan gave out $360 million to create the tests, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He pretended that the tests would not influence curriculum or instruction, but that is a transparent fiction. Tests drive curriculum and instruction, not the reverse.”
Here’s a possibility: Arne Duncan sincerely believes that the tests would not influence curriculum. It’s not as far fetched as it sounds because if you are in an affluent district the curriculum doesn’t need to change to accommodate tests the kids will do well no matter what. Duncan and his reformers all believe that if SOME children can overcome the adverse effects of poverty then ALL children can overcome those effects. They also believe that if ONE child who successfully overcomes adversity because of the influence of a “good teacher” then ALL children can overcome adversity if they have a “good teacher”. Duncan and the “reformers” have a deep and abiding faith in their beliefs, a faith that cannot be shaken by evidence to the contrary…. and true belief cannot be overcome by reason. The only way to change the minds of these folks is to undercut their core beliefs through direct experience…
This belief system is difficult to undercut for several reasons:
- The reformers are basing their beliefs on their own experiences as students in affluent schools.
- Moreover, the reformers are basing their beliefs on narratives they have composed about themselves, narratives that invariably make them successful because of “grit” and “hard work”.
- There ARE examples of children who DO succeed in the face of adversity… and those examples are shared with them constantly. This reinforces their belief system.
- Politicians love the idea that if ALL students have grit and work hard and have only good teachers that the vicious cycle of poverty can be cured. Too, politicians, like “reformers” have life experiences and personal narratives that reinforce this whole belief system.
- The “work hard and play by the rules” ethos is deeply embedded in our culture and to deny its existence would require that we acknowledge the game is rigged and the rules need to be re-written… and that requires a lot of hard work.
I think that we are nearing a tipping point where a majority of people are seeing that hard work and following rules is NOT working and that the game is rigged in favor of the shareholders and not the citizens. The 63% of voters who sat on the sidelines are not having their desires met by the 19% of voters who elected sycophants of the 1%. That majority of voters is huge and, so far, silent. We might hear from them in 2016.
I am preparing a for a six week course on George Orwell’s essays that I will be offering at an Adult Education program offered through Dartmouth College beginning in Winter, and just finished reading a critique of an essay Orwell wrote on “Boys Weeklies”. Inexpensive magazines and comics that were published with young British boys as the target audience, Orwell believed that the Boys Weeklies in the early 1900s taught boys to “love their rulers” and accept the social order in place at the time. He suggested that these stories followed a formula that led him to believe that they “must have been written, just as they were published, by a syndicate”.
This essay came to mind as I read “Enough Talk About Grit, It’s Time to Talk About Privilege“, a Truthdig article by Paul Thomas. The article opens with a description of the “prevailing winds” that suggest grit or perseverance can overcome economic disadvantages or racial prejudice. The Orwell essay on “Boys Weeklies” came to mind as I read about how the notion of “grit” is being applied in classrooms:
In one middle school visited by Tovia Smith of NPR, a “typical lesson” in social studies is spent exploring the career of Steve Jobs. The goal of the lesson… is to instill in these students the value of risk-taking and persistence. As Smith explains:
One way to make kids more tenacious, the thinking goes, is to show them how grit has been important to the success of others, and how mistakes and failures are normal parts of learning — not reasons to quit.
The children observed by Smith quickly grasped the lesson about Jobs:
Kids raise their hands to offer examples of Jobs’ grit.
“He had failed one of the Mac projects he was creating,” says one student.
“He used his mistakes to help him along his journey,” says another.
Thomas suggests teacher might want to assign a counter-narrative from a short story/allegory by George Saunders that leads to this conclusion:
…effort among people in the same status may well distinguish who succeeds, but relative privilege or poverty erases the impact of effort in most cases, especially when connected to social class and race, which often cancel out the promise of grit.
The balance of the article reviews a series of recent articles that blow the “grit” theory out of the water by providing evidence that supports the moral of Saunders’ allegory. Among the writers he draws on is the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates who finds the “grit” theory problematic for African-American students as evidenced in this quote:
Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
Like Orwell before him, Thomas has no time for those who want to create nationalistic myths, as his concluding paragraphs indicate:
Moralistic lessons based on the successes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are no more than twisted fairy tales, stories that promote effort as a mask for privilege, and hide the lesson we do not want to admit: opportunity and talent trump effort in this country, a fact that can be proven along both race and class lines.
Without equal opportunity, individual talent and effort pale against the advantages of class and racial privilege. Thus, despite cultural myths about effort, the U.S. remains a country where the accident of anyone’s birth is a greater indicator of success than how hard anyone tries. It’s time we stopped pretending otherwise.
As readers of this blog realize, we do not have anything resembling equal opportunity in our country, as the fact that citizens in 45 states have at one time or other filed lawsuits seeking more equitable funding for public schools. Until all schools can offer programs that match those offered by the most affluent in this country equal opportunity will remain a myth.
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