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Scandal of income-based inequality in education

Education as a strategy for addressing poverty depends on not being poor in the first place

The way we understand poverty determines what we do about it. That’s the argument Sasha Abramsky makes in his new book, The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, published by The Nation in 2013. Abramsky, who will be speaking in the Longhouse at Evergreen State College on February 19 at 6pm, argues that defining poverty as a tragedy may provoke compassion. But, he writes, what we are witnessing today isn’t a tragedy. It’s a scandal, “a subtle difference, but an important one. What turns poverty into a scandal rather than a tragedy is the political landscape out of which it bubbles”.

Inhabitants of the political landscape responsible for the scandal of increasing inequality and declining opportunity have adopted the position that education is the solution to both problems. Ironically, the surest predictor of educational success is family income. The better your income, the more likely you are to get a good education. Without significant changes in how we fund k-12 education and support low-income students through college, the success of education as a strategy for addressing poverty depends on not being poor in the first place.

One of the best thinkers about the relationship between education and income inequality today, Richard Rothstein, consistently argues that differences in educational achievement must be addressed side-by-side with the larger causes and consequences of inequality. We shouldn’t be pushing for school reform without pushing for universal health care at the same time, along with living wage jobs and affordable housing.

Given the caveat that changing the material conditions of students’ lives outside the classroom is critical to increasing educational achievement, what can be done now?

We need fairness in school funding. The Washington State Supreme Court is compelling the Legislature to increase its funding of basic education (K-12) to fulfill the Washington State Constitution promise of making “ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”

Washington needs to increase its funding for basic education. The Education Law Center (ELC), based at Rutgers Graduate School, published a National Report Card that ranks school funding fairness. One measure used by authors Bruce Baker, David Sciarra and Danielle Farrie is “effort,” which they define as the level of effort a state makes to fairly fund its public schools. They calculate effort by dividing the sum of state and local revenue per pupil by the state GDP. Washington State got an F in 2007, 2008, and 2009, one of only ten states to be rated so poorly.

More funding alone isn’t enough. Better policies need to be in place to address inequality. According to the ELC’s 2012 National Report Card, in half of Washington state’s school districts, ten to twenty percent of students live in concentrated poverty; in nearly 20% of them, between twenty and thirty percent do. A progressive finance system would allocate more funding to districts with high levels of student poverty. Seventeen states provide greater funding to high poverty districts than to low-poverty districts. Sixteen have regressive funding systems, providing high-poverty districts with fewer funds than low-poverty districts. Fifteen states, WA State among them, have “flat” systems, with no appreciable difference in funding among high and low-poverty districts.

Income inequality has huge effects on college completion. And yet, the “college completion agenda” is our primary social policy for reducing income inequality.

In “Developing 20/20 Vision on the 20/20 Degree Attainment Goal: The Threat of Income-Based Inequality in Education,” Pell Institute staff point out that the U.S. ranks 12th out of 36 developed countries in the number of 25-34 year olds with some type of college degree. However, when they looked at degree attainment by income quartile, they found that 58.8 percent of individuals in the top half of income distribution earned bachelor’s degrees by age 24. Only twelve percent of individuals from the bottom half of the income distribution earned bachelor’s degrees by the same age.

Comparatively speaking, if 58.8% of all students attained bachelor’s degrees by age 24, the US would have the highest share of bachelor degree recipients in the world. If 12% of all students attained bachelor’s degrees by age 24, the rate at which students whose family incomes fall into the bottom half of income distribution earn them, the U.S. would be thirty-fifth of the thirty-six developed countries in educational achievement. Which country are we?

Some important projects are underway that are designed to address the material circumstances in low-income students’ lives that jeopardize their education. One innovative program started in New York City with funding from the Robin Hood Foundation. SingleStop is a non-profit organization with locations on community college campuses in six states. At no cost to students, staff help identify eligibility for government supports like cash assistance, food stamps, unemployment, WIC, Social Security and more. Tax preparation is available, and so is legal counseling for issues ranging from evictions to child-care to immigration.  Staff members also provide one-on-one financial counseling sessions focused on building lifelong money management skills. The SingleStop office I visited at Kingsborough Community College was located right next to the registration office and was accessible to all students and to their families.

In May 2012, the Education Trust published a report on The Access to Success Initiative, a project aimed at halving the gaps between students of color and white students, and low-income students and more affluent ones, in both attending college and college completion. Twenty-two higher education systems, representing 3.5 million students—twenty percent of all students and nearly forty percent of underrepresented minority and low-income students—are participating. The results are good. When campuses turn their collective attention to increasing the success of students of color and low-income students, and keep their attention there, they figure out what to do. The surprising finding from the project is that work is mostly ordinary—mostly sensible—mostly very day-to-day.

“The work of the world is as common as mud,” Marge Piercy writes in her wonderful poem “To Be of Use.” If we want to address the scandal of poverty, we have a lot of common-sense work to do.

Emily Lardner teaches at Evergreen and co-directs one of Evergreen’s public service centers. 


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