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Economic Inequality = Educational Inequity

The role that poverty plays in learning is so well documented by now that it seems superfluous to raise the issue once again. But the cover story in the latest edition of The Nation serves as a powerful reminder that the worst is yet to come ("Inequality In America And What To Do About It"). Six essayists lay out the dire consequences for the country of the Great Recession and of the failure to take steps to address its fundamental causes.

The implications for schools stand out because narrowing the academic achievement gap between racial groups has become a top priority of reformers. In fact, on July 14, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called education "the civil rights issue of our generation" in a speech in Kansas City to NAACP delegates ("U.S. education secretary calls on NAACP to focus on schools"). But he has things in the wrong order when he said: "The only way to achieve equality in society is to achieve it in the classroom."

Unfortunately, as wealth reconcentrates at the very top in a way not seen since 1928, the effects will be unavoidably felt in public schools, regardless of what Duncan maintains. As Orlando Patterson wrote: "What for white-Americans is a Great Recession amounts to a virtual depression for a substantial number of African-Americans." That's because unemployment rates for the latter stood at 15.5 percent in May, compared with the overall national rate of 9.7 percent.

This disparity between white and black wealth not surprisingly is reflected in the disparity between the performance of white and black students. The Institute on Assets and Social Policy reported that black median family wealth barely grew over the past 25 years, hovering at $5,000 in 2007. In sharp contrast, white median family wealth in 2007 was $100,000 - twenty times that of black families. It is unimaginable that this enormous difference does not have a direct effect on academic achievement.

At the same time, black and Latino students (except from elite families)) are more segregated from whites than at any time since the 1960s. According to a report issued by the Civil Rights Project of the University of California, about 40 percent of black and Latino students attend schools that are almost totally composed of their own races. The segregation is not limited to schools. It is also seen in neighborhoods, churches, clubs and other associations. As a result, whatever harm takes place in school by segregation is exacerbated by what takes place outside of school.

What is not widely known is that even before the Great Recession, the U.S. had the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world, according to UNICEF. This rate has not budged significantly over a decade. The U.S. also has the highest rate of the permanently poor of all other industrialized nations. These appalling conditions are tolerated by no other advanced democracy. Yet with the exception of sporadic populist outrage, business goes on as usual. In fact, when it comes to education, pressure is building to deregulate and privatize schools, as if doing so will somehow mitigate inequities.

Those advocating this strategy are the same people who argue for fewer controls on corporations. The rationale in both cases is that an unencumbered marketplace is the solution to both the economic and educational ills of the country. We know by now where this approach led in the case of the former. Why would the outcome be different in the case of the latter? But by the time America wakes up to reality, it will be too late to undo the damage done by this warped thinking.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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