Public Education and Eating the Rich

(Update of 2018 post)

In France in 1787 and in Russia in 1917, the poor were very, very poor; the rich were very, very rich. The response to these examples of gross inequality was aptly described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.

Which, metaphorically, is what The People did. Almost exactly sixty years ago, an American President who was an avid student of history encapsulated the lessons of the French and Russian Revolutions into a warning for America:

A free society that does not help the many who are poor, cannot save the few who are rich.

In America today, the poor are very, very poor, and the rich are very, very rich. Senator Sanders’ claim that “The three wealthiest people” (Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett) own “more wealth than the bottom half of the American people” has been deemed “true” by Politifact. These two articles provide info that supports the reality of income inequality: The .1 percent are the true villains and Forget the 1% ,

Note that the last time the wealth of the top 0.1% exceeded that of the bottom 90% was during the few years before and during the Great Depression

The above graph from The Economist article shows that approaching 2014, the wealth of the top 0.1% was on track to exceed that of the bottom 90%. It can be acknowledged that the referenced article in Salon as well as a subsequent report in Business Insider indicates that the two lines have not yet crossed, but it seems that eventuality may have been ordained by the massive reallocation of wealth from households of the middle class to the wealthiest Americans as a result of the 2018 individual and corporate tax reforms signed by President Trump, as well as by the economic crisis created by Covid 19.

And while the concerns about income inequality exist across America, one of the most egregious examples of it lies right in front of our noses. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer (New Federal Report Surprises: Philadelphia Poverty Down, Income Up; updated: 9/26/2019) has an upbeat headline, but it reports Philadelphia’s 2019…

childhood poverty rate was 34.6%, compared with around 20% nationwide. And while its deep poverty rate — a measure of people living at 50% of the poverty line or below — dipped somewhat in 2018, it came in at 11.1% the highest among cities with a population of one million or more. The poverty line for a family of three in 2018 was $20,780.”

It should be noted that the deep poverty line for a family of three was half that of the actual poverty line. Despite the Inquirer’s identification of a drop in the number of impoverished residents, Philadelphia still had the highest poverty rate of the largest U.S. cities: 24.5% or ~388,000 souls of whom ~175,800 were living in deep poverty.

While I have a citizen’s concern about the inevitability of the poor taking to the streets in America’s poorest urban neighborhoods in places like Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, with devastating results, a major focus of my blog has been American Education. Just as a canary’s death from the accumulation of deadly carbon monoxide once warned coal miners of impending doom, dying urban-American public school systems serve the same function of alerting us to the impending doom awaiting schools that are dying from the deadly vapors of economic inequality.

The only proven way out of poverty in this country—taken advantage of by millions of impoverished immigrants and other poor during the last century—has been American Public Education, against which war has been waged by advantaged conservatives, the soldiers of the Army of Liberty. These politicians rarely call for Public Education’s demise publicly, in order to avoid confronting media revelations of their treachery, but in private, I am aware that some declare they do not want “their” tax dollars going to support “failing schools.”

In trying to understand conservative politicians’ strategies, it is imperative to ignore what they say and instead observe what they do. A good example would be a conservative candidate repeatedly stating, “Everybody is getting a tax cut, especially the middle class,” and then acting to create a tax reform program that most economists agree will permanently transfer massive amounts of wealth to the wealthiest Americans with only transitory cuts for the middle class, while all the while the now elected candidate repeats his campaign claim that has been proven erroneous.

In the same ambiguous vein, conservative politicians declare that a principal reason for supporting school choice and vouchers is that these policies will provide opportunities—finally!—for poor students to access quality education, when the actions of these same politicians is actually to provide tax breaks or vouchers for those Americans currently wealthy enough to send their kids (and many do) to private school without any assistance from the state, and these recipients of government largess are the very same Americans who are the most likely to chastise the notion of a welfare state.

A disadvantage for advantaged conservative policy makers is that they are generally clueless about what it means to be truly poor in today’s America. While I am not a conservative, I am advantaged, and were it not for the opportunity to serve “failing” charter schools in Philadelphia, as well as students from inner-city Wilmington when I was a high school principal, I would not have any appreciation of what it means to be truly poor.

Wilmington has had the misfortune to be characterized at one time or another as the “Murder Capital of America,” and many of my students came from the violent neighborhoods responsible for that title; as I write this, I am recalling one such young man sitting in my office and telling me about the bullet still in his shoulder from being shot a few weeks previously. At the end of my working career, for three to five days a week for a year, I drove through the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia to my assignments on behalf of the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Other than some educator friends and acquaintances, no one I know has ever driven on the streets I traveled in Philly; no one I know has gotten to know the people who work with poor kids every day whose stories of students’ success or disappointments, at times, moved me to tears.

If no one I know personally has had those experiences, I am fairly certain that the advantaged conservatives who comprise the Country Club Set have not had them either, but yet they support political positions that drastically and negatively impact the urban poor. In general, the actions of advantaged Americans suggest we do not collectively care that in a little more than a century, America has managed to change economically-integrated cities into segregated urban islands that reflect racial and class segregation. Chris Hayes’ A Colony in a Nation is a powerful exposé of this reality.

It is in the isolated islands of country clubs, suburban churches, board rooms, and neighborhood cocktail parties where advantaged conservatives concoct and refine their plans to increase their wealth—and what is most germane to this post—their plans to enhance opportunities for their own children, about whose achievements they love to boast while rarely if ever recognizing and acknowledging the role played by economic advantage (and white privilege) in those achievements. It would be indeed rare for these folks, compromised by their fog of selective ignorance, to discuss what should be done about the education of the ~160,000 Philadelphia children who live in poverty, except for, as already noted, conservative politicians’ claims regarding how “choice” and “vouchers” benefit the poor. Their perfidy is transparent in at least four ways (and they know it):

One, the notion that vouchers and choice would result in droves of poor students gaining access to quality education is false and reflects conservative politicians’ cynicism and belief that millions of Americans are unable to think critically, and therefore, will buy what they are selling. They are certain most Americans will not realize that there are very few spaces currently available for additional students in America’s private and charter schools, unless those students are six-foot-five and can dunk from the foul line. (Please excuse my own cynicism born of my experience living and working in New Castle County Delaware.)

Two, conservatives know that even if there are spaces in private schools and charters, the sophistication required to understand and go through the application process is daunting for (e.g.) a hard-working parent with two jobs and a sixth-grade education who does not speak English, or for someone who has been debilitated by drugs. If someone brings this challenge to the attention of a conservative, the likely response is, “that’s not MY problem.” (I refer any conservative reading this post to its title.)

Three, while charters are financially accessible to the poor because they are public schools, the notion that vouchers would make private schools accessible is ludicrous. When the education committees of state legislatures (like Pennsylvania’s GOP-dominated legislature) chew on the matter of vouchers, the dollar amount bandied about is usually only enough to pay the tuition of religious schools. Clever, isn’t it, using taxpayer dollars to support religious indoctrination of children under the guise of providing “quality” education to the poor?

Four, the aforementioned cynicism allows conservative politicians to create the impression that vouchers will provide poor students with access to traditional private schools, but that is a lie. The 2019 poverty Level for a family of four was $25,700; the ~70,000 Philly kids living in deep poverty means they are somehow existing with a family income that is half that of the poverty level. The annual tuitions for Tower Hill School in Wilmington and for Episcopal Academy outside Philadelphia are $30,126 and $28,100-$37,600 respectively; the tuition for St. Andrew’s Academy, a boarding school in Delaware, is $60,470 a year. Some of these schools provide scholarships, but even with that, if you do the math, it is easy to see that a kid in deep poverty (or a kid in poverty) is unlikely to attend one of these private schools.

I see at least two initial solutions:

The conservative solution is to codify what they believe—“Education is a privilege and not a right”—and then create formulaic policy that allows state-level bureaucrats to identify and reduce support—financial and otherwise—for what would be identified as failing schools, something states have done with impunity over the past two decades. The vast majority of these failing schools will be in urban and rural areas that serve poor children who will often be children of color. The upshot of these policies will be that these students will not have access to universal education because said schools will have funding reduced and will eventually be shut down because conservatives see maintaining them as a waste of “their tax dollars.” Lest you think this is unconstitutional, the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee free public education for all children, and there are GOP-dominated legislatures (Pennsylvania is an example) where some members of the education committees have acknowledged privately that would be their wish.

The progressive solution would be to affirm that “universal education in America is a right and not a privilege,” because as Thomas Jefferson declared:

A government is like everything else: to preserve it we must love it … Everything, therefore, depends on establishing this love in a republic; and to inspire it ought to be the principal business of education …

In order to fulfill this mission, the progressive solution must insist upon universal public education that trains, monitors, supports, and requires EVERY teacher to employ research-based instructional practices and appropriate classroom assessmentsnot standardized assessmentsin every school. Further, the inequitable distribution of wealth among school districts that mirrors the wealth inequities of citizens across a state, something that is a blatant fact in Pennsylvania, must be addressed, and not in the usual progressive practice of throwing money at challenged school districts, but in a coordinated, thoughtful, accountable, and strategic manner that is as free of political corruption as is humanly possible. A big ask given that those with power tend to reside in the most affluent school districts.

It is my hope that Americans will ultimately choose the progressive solution, not because of fear of being eaten by the poor, but because at our core, a majority of Americans are benevolent people who care about others, not out of fear, but because of a deeply-held acceptance of our founding philosophy:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And as a life-long educator and the descendent of poor immigrants who used effective and universal public education as a stepping stone on the pathway to the American Dream, I believe with every ounce of my being that the ultimate solution to the current American malaise is also what is needed to support Americans’ pursuit of happiness: the Creator-endowed right of every American child to experience effective, equitably-distributed, universal public education.

(The feature photo accompanying this post is a copyright-free picture published by Pixabay under Creative Commons Public Domain deed CCO: no copyright infringement is intended for any images accompanying this post.)

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