In 1787 France and in 1917 Russia, 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.
Fifty-seven years ago, a President who was also an avid student of history encapsulated the societal lesson 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—190,000 people live in Deep Poverty in Philadelphia alone—and the rich are very, very rich—Bernie’s claim that the top 0.1% of us has as much wealth as the bottom 90% has been deemed “mostly true” by Politifact. Two articles, The .1 percent are the true villains and Forget the 1% , provide info that supports claims of income inequality.
The following graph from The Economist shows that approaching 2014, the wealth of the top 0.1% was on track to exceed that of the bottom 90%. A subsequent chart prepared by Business Insider indicates that the two lines have not yet crossed, but it seems it may be ordained because of the massive reallocation of wealth from households of the middle class predicted to move to the wealthiest Americans as a result of the tax reform recently signed by the President.
(Note that the last time the wealth of the top 0.1% exceeded that of the bottom 90% was during the years just before and during The Great Depression.)
While I have a citizen’s concern about the inevitability of the poor taking to the streets in American’s poorest urban neighborhoods with devastating results, my focus of this blog is Education. Just as a canary’s death from carbon monoxide once warned miners of impending doom, American urban public school systems are canaries now dying from the poisonous 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 Public Education, upon which war is now being waged by radical, advantaged Conservatives. Conservative politicians rarely call for Public Education’s demise publicly, in order to avoid confronting media claims of their treachery, but in private, 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 observe their actions. 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, and all the while, the now elected candidate repeats the now erroneous claim.
In the same way, Conservative politicians declare that a principal reason for supporting school choice and vouchers is that it will provide opportunities—finally!—for poor students to access quality education, when their actions provide tax breaks or vouchers for those Americans currently wealthy enough to send their kids to private school.
A challenge for advantaged Conservatives is that they are generally clueless about what it means to be truly poor. While I am not a Conservative, I am advantaged, and were it not for the opportunity to serve twelve “failing” charter schools in Philadelphia and students from inner-city Wilmington when I was a principal, I would not have ANY idea of what it means to be truly poor.
Wilmington has had the misfortune to be characterized as the “Murder Capital of America,” and many of my students came from violent neighborhoods; 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. No one I know personally has ever driven on the streets I traveled; no one I know has gotten to know the people who work with poor kids every day and whose stories of students’ success or disappointments, at times, moved me to tears.
If no one I know personally 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 impact the urban poor. Advantaged Americans in general appear not to 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 worlds of country clubs, suburban churches, board rooms, and neighborhood cocktail parties that 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 seldom acknowledging the role played by economic advantage in those achievements. It would be indeed rare for these folks to discuss what to do about the education of the nearly 70,000 Philadelphia children who live in deep poverty.
But as already noted, Conservative politicians will testify to the value of choice and vouchers for 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 wrong and reflects Conservative politicians’ cynicism and belief that millions of Americans are unable to think critically. 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 (please excuse my own cynicism born of experience in New Castle County Delaware) are six-foot-five and can dunk from the foul line.
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 beginning words.)
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 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 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 2017 Poverty Level for a family of four is $24,600; the nearly 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 $28,580 and $33,100 respectively; the tuition for St. Andrew’s Academy, a boarding school in Delaware, is $55,000 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 is unlikely to ever attend one of these private schools.
I see at least two primary solutions:
The Conservative solution is to declare “Education is a privilege and not a right” and to create formulaic policy that allows State-level bureaucrats to identify and reduce support—financial and otherwise—for failing schools, the vast majority of which will be in urban areas and serve poor children of color. Ultimately, these students will not have access to universal education, and Conservatives will privately say what I have personally heard them say, “it’s not MY problem they’re poor.”
The Progressive solution would be to affirm that “universal education 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 assessments—never standardized assessments—in every school.
It is my hope that Americans will ultimately choose the Progressive solution, not because we are afraid 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 our deeply-seated 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.