Education Opinion

The Income Gap Compounds the Achievement Gap in Schools

By Anthony Cody — August 17, 2009 3 min read
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Good news! The productivity of this country has risen by 6.4% in the past quarter, while labor costs have dropped by 5.8%. We seem to be getting even more competitive as a nation. But the news isn’t all so good. New economic data shows that the gap between the rich and poor is wider than ever before – even than the 1920s. Research by UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez shows that in the year 2007, more than 50% of the income went to the top 10 % of the population. Much of that gain was due to tax cuts favoring the wealthy enacted in the past decade.

We often hear that schools are responsible for perpetuating an achievement gap between the academic haves and have-nots. The achievement of African American and Latino students is often significantly lower than the achievement of white and Asian American students. This has been the central focus of the educational reforms of No Child Left Behind. According to this law, as a nation we should be devoted to making the best education available to every child, regardless of their race. But this concern for the well-being of our children seems to run into trouble when actual money is involved.

In California, Governor Schwarzenegger, who has demanded “world class standards” be met by public schools, including Algebra for each and every 8th grader, has just balanced the budget by cutting $1000 per student from state funding for education. Schwarzenegger also cut funding for child welfare and medical aid for the poor. According to some of our leaders, taxes cannot be increased for any reason.

This is going to have a huge impact on schools across the state. California reduced class sizes to 20 or less for grades K to 3 back in 1996, but that will be going out the window in many districts this fall. Some kindergarten classes are starting next week with 34 students. This can only worsen the achievement gap in our schools. Teachers have been laid off, and many districts will cut salaries and even shorten the school year or eliminate summer school, adult school, and after school programs.

We are about to receive a barrage of education-related messages from a variety of sources. Unlikely partners Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton will be touring the country promoting charter schools and a “no excuses” message for parents. This week President Obama told eleven-year-old journalist Damon Weaverthat on September 8, he will be giving a major speech directed at students about the importance of education. That same day, a national campaign will be launched.

The press release states:

Get Schooled: You Have the Right formally kicks off "Get Schooled," a five-year national initiative co-developed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Viacom that creates a platform for corporate and community stakeholders to address the challenges facing America's public schools.”

Spokesperson Kelly Clarkson says:

Lots of young people run into problems beyond their control, like finances, that keep them from pursuing their education. At that point, it's easy to give up. But I believe it's important to continue to work hard and learn from everyone and everything around you."

Who can argue with the idea that young people should not give up? Or that we will all be better off if they pursue their education? However, at a certain point along here, I am starting to connect some dots. If young people are discouraged by a lack of finances, such as the absence of financial aid for education, or the lack of jobs in their communities, perhaps we should be working not just on their attitudes, but on the underlying economic realities that might affect them.

When Proposition 13 was passed in California back in 1978, the motivation was to protect elderly homeowners from annual property tax increases. Prop 13 changed the law so that taxes are only adjusted when a property changes hands – and this applies to all property in the state, including that owned by private corporations. Since property owned by corporations rarely changes hands, this has resulted in a huge multi-billion dollar loophole for corporations, and shifted the tax burden onto private homeowners. Some leaders in California have stepped up to advocate closing the Prop 13 loophole.

I appreciate the support for education our political and corporate leaders are showing. I agree that we should not give up – and we should keep learning. But I am learning we may need some more fundamental changes -- including real financial support for young people and their schools -- if we are going to keep the dreams of all our students alive.

What are the economic realities in your school and community? What do you think about the connection between the income gap and the achievement gap? What are some creative ways to close these gaps?

Graph used by permission.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.