[Article published in Amass Magazine, Issue 47, February-March 2013]
An American child’s chance of acquiring a quality education depends more on the parents’ income than on almost anything else, including ethnicity.
A few months ago, I was walking my infant daughter in her stroller in our Long Beach Belmont Heights neighborhood. As I turned the corner, I saw a lemonade stand run by a mother, her children, and their friends. I thought mom was teaching the kids how to become successful entrepreneurs!
Then I read the sign that said, “Lemonade for Fremont Elementary. Please support our fabulous science and computer labs!!” Another sign said, “Thank you Mrs. Phelps for your donations of lemons!!” I wanted to help in a small way, so I bought a couple of glasses of lemonade.
As I sipped the delicious fresh lemonade, the mother at the stand told me that for the last several years, the parents in the Fremont Elementary neighborhood had raised approximately $100,000 annually to help keep the labs open. They had been threatened with closure because of state-wide budget cuts. I wondered how many lemons it takes to raise $100,000 to keep two labs open? Not enough; and that’s why the parents from this affluent neighborhood had to raise and donate their own money; parents such as Keith and Karen Vescial, whose son Evan attends Fremont Elementary. Keith called this “a hybrid form of private/public education.” Keith went on to tell me “in communities that can’t or won’t raise or donate private money, the kids suffer”. Keith corroborated the lemonade mom’s story and said that he got the details at a PTA meeting.
This got me thinking, how many parents in the low-income neighborhoods in the U.S., can raise or donate $100,000 annually to save their school’s science lab, if they even have one? With the median household income in most of these areas lower than the national median of $50,054 per year, I would venture to say, not many of those parents, if any, can. As I walked my sleeping 9 month old daughter back home, it occurred to me, that something had to be done about the lack of resources in low-income neighborhoods.
The differences between low-income neighborhoods and high-income neighborhoods are clear when we compare two Long Beach High Schools, and two Long Beach Elementary Schools. Because Long Beach’s Jordan High School and Wilson High School are both in the LBUSD, they both receive similar levels of per pupil funding. Yet, the majority of Wilson students’ academic achievement levels were much higher than Jordan’s. In this case, the students’ academic achievement rates were correlated with their parents’ income levels. Generally, the higher income levels of Wilson parents produce the social environment which enables their children to do better in school.
Inequality in parental income is a major factor in students’ achievement because more affluent parents can provide all the support outside of school such as parental help with extra academic support including homework, outside tutoring, extra curricular arts and science activities, “academic camps” and well funded PTAs that can spend money as well. Also, higher income families enjoy the benefits of economically secure and physically safe environments, for example, with less crime and gang activity. Most low income parents can not afford these things. Many low income parents, for no fault of their own, do not have resources or time to provide their children with the same rich, supportive learning environment. Many low income parents are forced to work overtime, or hold down two jobs to make ends meet. Until these parents’ incomes are increased, public spending must be increased to make our schools into after hours youth centers to provide their children with a similar, supportive outside-the-classroom learning environment as the children of the wealthy.
Jordan High School is located in a low to moderate income area of North Long Beach. Five percent of parents in the area make over $125,000, annually, and 75 percent of students are classified as socio-economically disadvantaged. Wilson High School is located in the middle to high income area of southern Long Beach, 15 percent of parents in this area make over $125,000 annually, and 48 percent of students are classified as socio-economically disadvantaged. This is why, despite the similar per pupil funding level, test scores at Wilson High school far surpass those at Jordan high school. (lbschools.net). Measuring academic performance for 2010-2011 by the percent of students who are proficient or advanced on standardized tests, Jordan’s scores are less than half of Wilson’s: 22% in English/Language Arts, 9% in Math, 23% in Science, and 23% in History/Social Science. In comparison, Wilson’s numbers are 50% in English/Language Arts, 22% in Math, 56% in Science and 49% in History/Social Science. (lbschools.net)
Jordan’s numbers are much lower than Wilson’s in other ways: For every 100 students in 9th grade enrolled in Jordan, 48 go on to graduate four years later, and only 13 pass the courses required to enter the CSU and UC systems. In contrast, for every 100 students in 9th grade enrolled in Wilson, 67 go on to graduate, and 36 pass the courses required. (California Education Opportunity Report, 2011, idea.gseis.ucla.edu/educational-opportunity-report).
The same differences that exist at the high school level also exist at the elementary school level. Fremont Elementary and King Elementary are both in the Long Beach Unified School District and receive similar per pupil funding. Fremont Elementary, which is in the same affluent Belmont Heights area of Long Beach as Wilson High School, produces excellent academic achievement results. Fremont, the school with its own Science and Computer labs now kept open by generous donations from affluent parents, jog-a-thons, and lemonade stands, produces high academic achievement results: in English, Math, and Science, 84 percent, 88 percent, and 88 percent of students scored in the proficient or advanced category, respectively. In contrast, King Elementary, in the same lower-income area of North Long Beach as Jordan High School, produces much lower academic achievement results than Fremont Elementary. King’s achievement results were: in English, Math, and Science, 48 percent, 65 percent, and 41 percent of students score in the proficient or advanced category, respectively. (lbschools.net)
Why are these differences so great? Some would argue that the fault lies with the parents, others would blame the failing economy. The simple fact of the matter is that greater family income and wealth are correlated with greater student academic achievement. That fact has been proven in study upon study.
In a 1966 report to the U.S. Congress, sociologist James S. Coleman found that, regardless of ethnicity or race, students from low income families didn’t perform as well academically as students who’s parents were higher income. Coleman’s findings have been confirmed over and over since then. In 2006, Douglas Harris, a University of Wisconsin economist found that in schools where more than half of the students were low-income, only 1.1 percent of those schools performed at a high level. In schools that were majority middle class, 24.2 percent of those schools met the “high” level standard. That’s a huge difference.
The inequality in parental income and student educational achievement is also great when we compare a wealthy California school district with a less affluent one. Palo Alto Unified School District is one of the most affluent school districts in California. Annually, 48 percent of parents of students in this district make over $125,000, ranking it high on the Neighborhood Affluence Rate, and per pupil funding is approximately $13,376. Compare that to Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), where parents earn significantly less and the per pupil spending is $8,719. The test scores mirror what is happening in dollars. The average API score in Palo Alto is 925, ranking it in the highest 25 percent of California students. The average API score in Long Beach is 759, ranking it in the next to lowest 25 percent, much lower than Palo Alto. (June 2, 2011, Californiawatch.org).
The numbers are even more staggering at Palo Alto High School. For every 100 students enrolled as 9th graders, 92 graduated, and 92 passed the courses required for admission to CSU and UC. At Gunn High School in Palo Alto the numbers were even higher. For every 100 students enrolled as 9th graders, 96 graduated, and 96 passed the courses required for admission to CSU and UC. (California Education Opportunity Report, 2011).
California generally has very unequal funding among school districts. The State does not equalize this funding difference, which is primarily due to wealthier districts raising more school funding through property taxes.
Low income parents in districts with lower property values have much less school funding than the high property value districts. For example, total per pupil spending is $13,376 in the Palo Alto Unified District, a part of wealthy Silicon Valley. Total per pupil funding is $8,719 in the Long Beach Unified School District, where the property values of homes and businesses are generally lower than Palo Alto’s. Federal funding is the least of the three sources of revenue, and is only three percent of the federal budget. After a $7 billion K-12 funding cut, between 2008 and 2011, California now ranks 49th out of the 50 states in per pupil funding at $8,852, while New York ranks near the top, spending $15,012 per pupil. (edweek.org)
The Great Recession has reduced public spending at many levels of government, including for education. However, the deterioration of our economy didn’t happen in a tunnel and neither did the dismantling of California’s great public education system. The following were the key culprits in this outrageous and pathetic tragedy:
First, the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which removed billions of dollars from the public education system, was the start of the slippery downward slope that we are on. Ironically, two thirds of Prop 13 tax cuts have gone to big commercial property owners such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and Bank of America, while only one third of the tax cuts have gone to home owners. Homeowners need Prop 13 tax cuts and should keep them. Big commercial property owners do not need the tax cuts, and their tax loophole should be closed. This will send billions of badly needed dollars to public education in California.
Second, drastic reduction in federal tax rates on the upper incomes of the super rich: under Republican President Eisenhower the rate was 91%; under Republican President Reagan, 28%; and under Democratic President Obama, 39.6%. This brought severe reductions in federal funding for effective social and educational programs such as CETA, Pell Grants, Americorp, Head Start, and after-school academic arts and sports programs that helped keep kids on the path of educational and life success. These cuts have made an already dire situation worse.
Third, since the Reagan right wing agenda of cutting taxes on the rich, immensely increasing defense spending, and severely cutting social programs such as public education, a cultural/ ideological shift has taken place. Because of this shift, and the outsourcing of middle class jobs through Free Trade (instead of Fair Trade), the gap between the rich and poor has grown substantially in the past 30 years. Rich corporate executives are making 400 times the income of the average American worker. In the last three years alone the top 1 percent of Americans captured 93 percent of the total growth in income, according to UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saenz. That left only 7 percent of the new income for 99 percent of Americans to share.
Much of Corporate America sees no problem with the increasing gap between rich and poor. Moreover, these Big Businesses feel that the growth in this gap is the natural outcome of their CEO’s hard work, innovation, ingenuity, and the laziness of the rest of America. Their ideology of extreme rugged individualism says that we should each pull ourselves up by our own boot straps! Most of them would argue that they deserve huge tax cuts and corporate subsidies because they, the 1%, are creating jobs for us, the 99%, and we should be grateful to them.
With success in education increasingly determining success in income, we face a dire future as Californians and Americans: the well educated, well heeled upper class will leave in the dust the less educated, deteriorating and desperate, working middle class and working poor. Universal public education, promoted by American educational reformers such as Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, Susan B. Anthony, and John Dewey, has served as a force to overcome class barriers. Instead it now appears to be increasing class barriers!
What becomes clearly apparent from the jumble of statistics is that most students from higher-income neighborhoods do far, far better in school than most students from lower-income neighborhoods, as long as the per pupil funding is adequate or high. This sets most of them on the trajectory of high academic achievement in high school, college, university, and strongly positions them for high economic achievement in American society. On the other hand, most students from lower-income neighborhoods tend to have greater obstacles to overcome in their climb up the academic and socio-economic ladder in the United States. It does not and should not have to be this way.
We pride ourselves as being an exemplary democracy, for the rest of the world to follow, a country which provides equal opportunity for all of its children to achieve their full human potential by studying and working hard. In order to live up to this ideal, we must undertake major socio-economic and political reforms. The reforms must include reducing the gap between rich and poor, and rebuilding the middle class by implementing a strongly progressive income tax such as we had from the 1930s until the 1970s; closing unfair corporate tax loopholes and ending corporate welfare; increasing the wages of working Americans by strengthening unions and the right to organize; promoting Fair Trade, not Free Trade policies. By doing the above, as well as eliminating waste in the bloated military defense budget, we will have the revenue to invest in the economy and create jobs, public and private. Also, we can make it a priority to invest in equal educational opportunity for all Americans, preschool through technical, trade school, college, and university.
None of the above will happen in any significant way until the majority of American elected officials are financed through a voluntary, publicly funded campaign system, not through the huge amounts of money donated to them by wealthy special interest lobbyists, and millionaires and billionaires. Clean Money Elections at the Federal level, following the example of states such as Maine, need to be adopted through Federal legislation or a Constitutional Amendment. Then only will we be able to implement a system of educational and social justice, and move from a Dollar Democracy, with liberty and justice for some, to a True Democracy with liberty and justice and equal educational opportunity for all ! ♦
This article was used in whole or in part by the author Peter Mathews in his latest book: “Dollar Democracy”.