Home > Uncategorized > A Billionaire Who Gets It: Our Education System Cannot Compensate for the Injustices of Our Economic System

A Billionaire Who Gets It: Our Education System Cannot Compensate for the Injustices of Our Economic System

Billionaire entrepreneur Nick Hanauer offers a mea culpa in an Atlantic article that appeared inCommon Dreams titled “Sorry, But Just Having Better Public Schools Will Not Fix America”. He opens the post with this confession:

Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.

This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy.As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.

But Mr. Hanauer came to understand that this narrative lays the blame for all of society’s ills on public education without acknowledging the impact of those same ills on the schools…. and he came to conclude that the “egg” of economic dysfunction led to “chicken” of “failing schools”.

What I’ve realized, decades late, is that educationism is tragically misguided. American workers are struggling in large part because they are underpaid—and they are underpaid because 40 years of trickle-down policies have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like me. Americans are more highly educated than ever before, but despite that, and despite nearly record-low unemployment, most American workers—at all levels of educational attainment—have seen little if any wage growth since 2000…

For all the genuine flaws of the American education system, the nation still has many high-achieving public-school districts. Nearly all of them are united by a thriving community of economically secure middle-class families with sufficient political power to demand great schools, the time and resources to participate in those schools, and the tax money to amply fund them. In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow. But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.

By distracting us from these truths, educationism is part of the problem.

And educationism has distracted us mightily with its efficiency driven spreadsheet mentality whereby schools are “measured” and rank-ordered using seemingly precise standardized tests and other cheap and easy metrics and penalizing those schools that fall short for reasons that have nothing to do with their effectiveness and everything to do with the socio-economic factors of the children attending them. Mr. Hanauer goes on to burst other bubbles of his billionaire brethren, undercutting the narrative of the “skills gap”, the “under-educated workforce”, the need for more STEM, and the underlying belief that better schools will take care of the unarguable economic divide. And Mr. Hanauer does so with facts and data that counter the story lines embraced by the edu-philanthropists. His solution for improving public schools is one that is unsettling… and one rooted in de facto redistribution:

All of which suggests that income inequality has exploded not because of our country’s educational failings but despite its educational progress. Make no mistake: Education is an unalloyed good. We should advocate for more of it, so long as it’s of high quality. But the longer we pretend that education is the answer to economic inequality, the harder it will be to escape our new Gilded Age.

However justifiable their focus on curricula and innovation and institutional reform, people who see education as a cure-all have largely ignored the metric most predictive of a child’s educational success: household income.

Mr. Hanauer then lays out a series of facts his counterparts will, alas, be unlikely to accept and ideas they will also be unlikely to embrace:

Indeed, multiple studies have found that only about 20 percent of student outcomes can be attributed to schooling, whereas about 60 percent are explained by family circumstances—most significantly, income. Now consider that, nationwide, just over half of today’s public-school students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, up from 38 percent in 2000. Surely if American students are lagging in the literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills our modern economy demands, household income deserves most of the blame—not teachers or their unions.

If we really want to give every American child an honest and equal opportunity to succeed, we must do much more than extend a ladder of opportunity—we must also narrow the distance between the ladder’s rungs. We must invest not only in our children, but in their families and their communities. We must provide high-quality public education, sure, but also high-quality housing, health care, child care, and all the other prerequisites of a secure middle-class life. And most important, if we want to build the sort of prosperous middle-class communities in which great public schools have always thrived, we must pay all our workers, not just software engineers and financiers, a dignified middle-class wage.

His idea that employers could find qualified workers if they paid them more seems obvious to any student of Economics 101 in college… but in our era of outsourcing, robotics, and downsizing the profiteers seem content to displace workers in favor of accumulating profits.

Mr. Hanauer concludes his article with this Big Idea which no billionaire is likely to accept and only a handful of politicians are willing to talk about:

Educationism appeals to the wealthy and powerful because it tells us what we want to hear: that we can help restore shared prosperity without sharing our wealth or power. As Anand Giridharadas explains in his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, narratives like this one let the wealthy feel good about ourselves. By distracting from the true causes of economic inequality, they also defend America’s grossly unequal status quo.

We have confused a symptom—educational inequality—with the underlying disease: economic inequality. Schooling may boost the prospects of individual workers, but it doesn’t change the core problem, which is that the bottom 90 percent is divvying up a shrinking share of the national wealth. Fixing that problem will require wealthy people to not merely give more, but take less.

And fixing the problem will require people like me who are comfortable but not billionaires, to accept a reality described in a pin that reads: “End Economic Inequality: Tax Me”.

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