Sara Mead made fast work of the Washington Post’s sensational headline-driven story on poverty rates in public schools. Half of U.S. public students living in poverty was a headline too good to check apparently. The original story conflated subsidized lunch eligibility with the poverty line, a common and easy mistake to make.
But, leaving aside the specifics of the story the underlying issue – high numbers of children living in poverty – does have important implications. First, as Mead notes:
Finally, I’d note that this data does raise a serious obstacle for those who argue that the best way to improve the educational outcomes for low-income kids is to send more of them to majority middle class schools. But when more than half of kids live in low-income families, those low-income children can attend majority middle class schools only if they go to schools that serve lower populations of low-income children than the nation as a whole. The idea that slightly increasing the number of low-income kids in middle class schools will get us to educational nirvana is a pipe dream. Given our nation’s current demographics, there is no path to ensuring quality education for all low-income kids that does not require increasing the number of high-performing schools serving significant concentrations of poor and/or low-income children.
In addition, it’s hard to look at these data and not have some concerns about the future of public schools as a broad-based institution in the United States. People with means are opting out of the public schools via “public privates,” public schools in high-property value areas that function like de facto private schools. Meanwhile, although private school enrollment bounces around, the nation’s elite consider generally public school participation a good thing for other people to do – like military service. Some of the reasons are understandable. A black friend in Virginia recently remarked to me that he just couldn’t “risk it” with the public schools for his kids. Anyone with an even cursory understanding of education today can understand where he’s coming from even if they make a different choice. Some of the reasons are also just part and parcel of the more general economic and social separation that is happening in American society.
So here’s a thought. Today, when you go to a professional sports event it’s routine to have a salute to a veteran or group of veterans. After which everyone goes back to ignoring the sacrifices service members and their families make for our general good. Such rituals are a way for people to feel a connection to the military but it’s a very loose connection (most higher income Americans don’t have close friends for family members who actually fire weapons in combat, for instance). One doesn’t have to imagine too much to see public school teachers similarly held up as exemplars a generation from now, representatives of an institution people want to feel good about but don’t actually experience. In fact, you don’t have to wait a generation, some of that happens now…
What to do about all this? Attack poverty more aggressively, of course. But also make the schools better and more desirable. One strategy for that is giving people more choices. Charters help with this (and the charter waiting lists highlight a staggering missed opportunity for progressives) but it takes more. If people want Montessori give them Montessori. If they want Core Knowledge give them Core Knowledge. Schools focusing on art and music or technology and math. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. As long as there are common expectations for outcomes and quality the best way the education establishment can help the public schools it claims to care so much about is to actually give them back to the public rather than perpetuate today’s trench warfare about power and control.