Wealth inequality, education edition

by David Safier

Bob Lord pretty much covers the income/wealth inequality beat here at BfA, but a piece in today's NY Times moves the discussion into my area: education. Our education system, the author says, favors the wealthy over the poor. That isn't a surprise, of course. Kids from high income families have every educational advantage over kids from poor families, in the U.S. and around the world. But the author makes the important point that even our public schools spend more on wealthy children than poor children, increasing the educational disparity.

The truth is that there are two very different education stories in America. The children of the wealthiest 10 percent or so do receive some of the best education in the world, and the quality keeps getting better. For most everyone else, this is not the case. America’s average standing in global education rankings has tumbled not because everyone is falling, but because of the country’s deep, still-widening achievement gap between socioeconomic groups.

And while America does spend plenty on education, it funnels a disproportionate share into educating wealthier students, worsening that gap. The majority of other advanced countries do things differently, at least at the K-12 level, tilting resources in favor of poorer students.

The last sentence in the passage bears repeating. Other countries give extra funds to low achieving schools — which usually means schools with low income kids. The usual result is, those kids do better than they would otherwise. They may not reach the same achievement level as wealthy kids, but they close the gap a bit. Here, the amount spent on schools with high income kids tops what goes to the schools where the kids need the most educational help. And Arizona is doing its best to increase the disparity. Brewer and her education cronies want to reward high performing schools with extra funding and punish schools that aren't making the grade.

Preschool is one way to narrow the achievement gap, or at least prevent it from widening. It's the rare child from upper income family who doesn't attend preschool of some kind, but as a nation, only 69% of young children are enrolled in preschool. That compares to an 81% preschool enrollment rate in the comparable nations.

The inequity on the amount spent per student on a college education is startling as well.

Since the 1960s, annual per-pupil spending at the most selective public and private colleges has increased at twice the rate of the least selective colleges. By 2006, the funding chasm in spending per student between the most and the least selective colleges was six times larger than in the late 1960s.

Students from wealthy families are eight times more likely to enroll in the most selective colleges than students from poor families.

As Leonard Cohen put it, "Everyone knows that the dice are loaded." These days, the casino is more crooked than ever, lavishing extra favors on the wealthiest patrons — and on their children, to help perpetuate the inequality.

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