Education Funding: Where Two Fundamental American Ideals Completely Conflict.

In response to the viral letter from a 1%-er complaining about poor kids trick or treating in her neighborhood, Libby Anne talks about the way that poor children are deliberately and systematically disadvantaged by explicit policies related to education in this country. She talks about the case of her own daughter’s school district:

My kindergartener attends a “poor” school. I’ve looked at the boundary map for her school, and it looks like someone went out of their way to piece all of the poor neighborhoods together while leaving out the wealthier ones. And guess what? Someone did. I researched the backstory, and it turns out that my daughter’s school boundaries were drawn in the midst of some pretty heavy advocacy by some wealthy neighborhoods to stay out. Because apparently my children aren’t good enough for them to send their children to school with.< /p>

And I am angry. I am angry because this is about resource hoarding. It’s about the rich passing on all the resources possible to their children while depriving poor children of access to equal resources, and it’s disgusting. We give all sorts of lip service to equality of opportunity in this country, but in actually our social mobility is abysmally lowIt is difficult for the children of the rich to fall into poverty, and difficult for the children of the poor to get out. And it is not this way by accident—it is this way because this is how the system set up.

Americans need to choose between two ideals that are celebrated to the point of being sacrosanct in mainstream American discourse.

The first ideal is that this should be a land of opportunity where anyone, no matter what circumstances they are born into, can be free to pursue whatever dreams they have. Social mobility is the ideal. Through talent and hard work we can earn success. Only those both less talented and unwilling to work will, deservingly, take their place at the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

The second ideal is that this should be a country where people are able to provide a better situation in life for their kids than they had themselves. Maybe they grew up poor but now their kids can grow up with middle class securities, comforts, and, most of all, advantages. Or maybe they came here as immigrants and practically sacrificed their lives working 80 hours a week running a mom and pop business so that they could make enough money so that their kids could follow dreams of jobs with greater personal satisfaction and/or better pay while working less all-consuming hours.

I get the impression that countless Americans put up with a great deal of personal dissatisfaction in their work because of the vicarious dream of what their kids will make of themselves. There is still a chance for their kids to be happier and more successful than they are.

And this is a perfectly human attitude and a kind of love for other people that is pretty admirable and touching on a certain level. The way many parents love and devote themselves to their kids is on a certain level an astonishingly powerful counter-evidence against the idea that we are all psychologically incapable of looking out for anyone more than ourselves.

And yet, so many actions done in the name of this ideal are what destroy the ideal of this country as a land of opportunity and social mobility. Because, essentially, what the ideal of providing better opportunities for your kids based on your own achievement means is that your kids inherit more opportunities than other kids with less financially successful parents get.

So while Americans give lip service about the land of opportunity, I can’t think of a single case where I have come across a politician with the temerity to advocate federalizing the funding of education so that every single American child had the same amount of dollars spent on her education as every other American child. I have never seen this ever proposed. Because, of course, it would be dead on arrival. Instead we have middle class American parents seemingly completely ideologically invested in the ideal that if they can make enough money to live in a wealthier neighborhood, with higher property taxes to create better funded schools so that their kids can get a better education, this is what they deserve. They work hard to give their kids a better life. Their kids deserve this advantage. Screw you, poor kids, living in poorly funded school districts reflective of your poor parents’ incomes. Maybe your parents should just have been as savvy and hard working as the parents in middle class or upper class families.

So, despite how much Americans theoretically love social mobility, in practice this is a country that actually acts like it believes kids deserve advantages and disadvantages correlated to their parents’ success. Of course, nominally, these kids are free to compete and the poor kids have no legal restrictions on outstripping the better off kids. But it’s better-off parents’ sacred rights to create an uneven playing field.

And then after mandatory education and public school runs out, in order to become socially mobile by any predictably successful route, these 18 year olds, who have no market-ready skills or personal lucrative streams of income, are essentially required to suddenly have tens of thousands or, even, hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to a competitive college or university (and possibly even graduate school). Where’s that money supposed to just materialize?

The better off parents have a far better chance of being able to either fully pay that bill or drastically subsidize it. The worse off students are going to have to be saddled with greater debt and more likely have to work more hours at a job that eats time they need to adequately study the amount of material in the proper depth to be a genuinely educated college graduate. And so in college, these students who have to work more than the others because their parents foot less of the bill risk taking tests with less preparation time than the other students. Then, after college, the huge debt burden they carry can force them to take fewer risks, not be able to take the poorly compensated (or outright not paying) internship that young people floated by their parents can use to get their foot in the door in an industry.

Meanwhile, defenders of an unconscionably low minimum wage mock the idea that fast food workers deserve a living wage by suggesting (falsely) that it’s just teenagers in those jobs and they don’t need to make enough to live on. Meanwhile the teenagers and early 20somethings who are among those in minimum wage jobs are supposed to be raising tens of thousands of dollars for college so they can compete in an economy where lacking a college education not only makes not a huge lifetime difference in salary but leads to catastrophic unemployment levels. But people in this country actually scoff at calls for young people (and the many others) working minimum wage jobs getting paid a salary that they can actually live off of or save anything from. 

And so it goes on and on. By not distributing funding for education equally such that every child has the same resources available–and especially by letting racist travesties like white flight perpetually keep historically disadvantaged people’s kids remain stuck with inferior opportunities because they study in inferiorly funded schools–we systematically stack the deck against rewarding people based on talent and hard work alone and in favor of inherited advantages and consolidated social classes and wealth. Then by not universally funding university for anyone who qualifies to go, we put a fundamentally unfair and irrational financial burden on precisely the people who are incapable of generating the money to pay it for themselves.

So while we as a society benefit in innumerable ways from having many millions of educated people, we are forcing those people to foot the bill for their own education, often entirely, at a point in their lives when they have no reasonable expectation of having the funds to pay for it themselves. Then we make it prohibitively expensive to poorer young people to have as much choice and opportunity as others their age. We give them extra burdens against those they compete with in school. We give them enormous work distractions when they deserve to be fully concentrating on learning as a serious full time endeavor. And finally we force them to enter the work force at a huge financial disadvantage due to debt. Meanwhile businesses get to hire ready trained people who paid for their own training and make huge profits off of them while paying minimal taxes to subsidize the education of this work force.

This is all irrational, unfair, unsustainable, and a betrayal of all our lip service about America being the “land of opportunity that rewards talent and hard work” rather than inherited wealth and class. When it comes to education funding when you say, “I work hard, I should be able to pass on advantages to my kids that other kids don’t have” you’re basically saying “my kids are entitled to advantages that they did not earn themselves and other kids are entitled to disadvantages that they did not earn themselves”. You’re saying that your kids deserve more fundamental economic opportunity because of what you do rather than what they do and other kids deserve less because of what their parents do rather than what they do. You are arguing for a de facto system of inherited wealth and advantage that undermine the meritocratic principles that this is supposed to be a country where talent and hard work are determinative of outcomes which you also probably espouse. As hard as it is to face, children are not just extensions of you they don’t deserve the leg up you may have earned for yourself and they certainly don’t deserve the shove down that their parents may have earned for themselves (or may very well even have been systematically been pushed down with by forces out of their own control).

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