It’s rare that I disagree with former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich’s public policy views. But I think he was wrong when he wrote that “lousy schools” are the fundamental cause of poverty in this country (“The Three Biggest Right-Wing Lies About Poverty,” OpEdNews, Jun. 14). I submit that Reich has the explanation in reverse: Poverty is the fundamental cause of lousy schools.
That’s because schools are not Lourdes. Even the best schools can do only so much to overcome the huge deficits that disadvantaged children bring to kindergarten in the form of socialization, motivation and intellectual development through no fault of their own (“What No School Can Do,” The New York Times, Jan. 16, 2000). Reformers will argue that I’m making excuses. They cite the example of KIPP and Success Academy Charter Schools, which admittedly have an enviable record. But these schools are anomalies. Students who are enrolled come from parents who are involved in their education. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have applied for admission in the first place.
Yet even when their students go on to graduate from four-year colleges they don’t routinely get well-paying jobs. The problem is not a labor market in which there is a shortage of skills (“Don’t Blame the Work Force,” The New York Times, Jun. 15, 2013). Instead, the problem is a persistently weak economy where businesses will not pay decent salaries. If schools graduated as many underprepared students as Reich claims, then salaries of workers would rise. But they haven’t.
Reich correctly points out that the U.S. is one of only three advanced countries that spends less on the education of disadvantaged students than it does on richer ones. But it doesn’t follow that spending more on these schools will necessarily improve them or improve the opportunities these students will have after graduation. Nevertheless, I’m disturbed as much as Reich by the disparity in spending between schools in the suburbs and those in the inner cities. That’s why I applaud what California is doing (“Gov. Brown leaves his mark,” Los Angeles Times, Jun. 12, 2013). All public schools will receive a specified base payment for each student. Schools will receive 20 percent more for each student who is poor enough to qualify for a free school lunch, or is not fluent in English. But I do not believe that this policy alone will produce the results that he believes. That will require turning attention to institutions beside schools to provide the human and social capital so desperately needed.
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.