Education Funding Opinion

Schools in a Banana Republic

By Anthony Cody — November 08, 2010 5 min read
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Nicholas Kristof this week described the economic state of the nation in rather stark terms. Due to the accelerated concentration of wealth, this country is in danger of becoming what is derisively termed a “banana republic.” This term has been used to describe the Central American dictatorships such as Nicaragua and the Honduras, where a handful of families control the wealth, land and economy, while the poor barely get by. Kristof shared statistics that reveal the US has pretty much arrived at a similar situation.

The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976.
C.E.O.'s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.

And the tax cuts from the Bush era continue to put billions in their pockets.

How is today’s economy affecting our students?

Rising inequality also led to more divorces, presumably a byproduct of the strains of financial distress.
Mounting evidence suggests that losing a job or a home can rock our identity and savage our self-esteem. Forced moves wrench families from their schools and support networks

Yes, unemployment causes divorce. Unemployment causes tremendous stress. Stress that bubbles over in the homes of those in poverty, unable to keep the lights on, to buy adequate food, to feel safe and secure. These stresses are terrible for children, and for their ability to concentrate and learn in school. In many of our schools we have more than 90% of the children on free and reduced lunch. We have unemployment in excess of 15%, and much higher for African Americans and Latinos. The transfer of wealth we are experiencing will be felt by a whole generation of children, and affect school performance for years to come.

As Stephen Krashen pointed out here recently,

American students from well-funded schools who come from high-income families outscore all or nearly all other countries on international tests. Only our children in high poverty schools score below the international average. The US has the second highest percentage of children in poverty of all industrialized countries (22.4%, compared to Sweden's 2.6%) which of course pulls down our overall average. The success of American children who are not in poverty shows that our educational system has been successful; the problem is poverty.
When the problem of poverty is solved, all children will have the advantages that right now only middle-class children have. This will close the "achievement gap" between children from high and low-income families.

And how will our public institutions be able to respond? All indications are that we are entering a new era of economic austerity. Newly elected congressional representatives believe they have a mandate to “pay as you go,” and cut way back on “discretionary” spending. Most of these policymakers, unfortunately, do not think they have any say over the half of the federal budget that is devoted to military spending, so that is off the table for cuts. And they can’t touch Medicare or Social Security - so actually 85% of the budget will not be touched. But things in that 15% that are considered discretionary are vulnerable, and that includes federal education spending.

This will have a mixed affect. On the one hand, the reduction of discretionary spending will mean the days of Daddy Warbucks Duncan dangling tempting billions before state policy makers to get them to race to adopt his policies may be numbered. This could be a healthy thing, since many of the reforms he has promoted have been bad ideas. On the other hand, Federal dollars provide crucial support to many low-income schools, and if these funds are cut now, at the same time state dollars are dwindling, the results will be devastating. We should be clear that when taxes are cut for the wealthy, and education is cut for the poor, dollars have, in effect, been transferred upwards.

There is one other area of spending that has, up to this point, been immune from cuts - our prison system. As James Carroll pointed out yesterday,

In 1975, there were fewer than 400,000 people locked up in the United States. By 2000, that had grown to 2 million, and by this year to nearly 2.5 million. As the social scientist Glenn C. Loury points out, with 5 percent of the world's population, the United States imprisons 25 percent of all humans behind bars. This effectively created a vibrant shadow economy: American spending on the criminal justice system went from $33 billion in 1980 to $216 billion in 2010 -- an increase of 660 percent. Criminal justice is the third largest employer in the country.
In the 1990s, as federal corrections budgets increased by $19 billion, money for housing was cut by $17 billion, "effectively making the construction of prisons the nation's main housing program for the poor.'


Most of those 2.5 million Americans lived in poverty, and many of them have children enrolled in our schools. If poverty has a devastating effect, imagine the effect incarceration of a parent has on a child.

The war on poverty has been replaced by a war against the poor.

In states across the nation, there has been a call for more local control of schools. This is a healthy direction when coupled with real democratic control by parents and educators, but there is one big problem with this. Resources are not spread evenly, and some areas are much wealthier than others. Local control cannot always generate the resources the schools need. The ideal of high quality public schools for all has also been greatly undermined by the drive to standardize everyone and punish those with low scores.

How does the extreme concentration of wealth affect our schools?

The middle class is being squeezed out of existence. The result is that voters are more reluctant than ever to sacrifice their money to pay for services - and so they want their taxes cut. People in wealthier communities contribute directly to their schools to make sure they have the resources that are needed - as I described in this post last year. Or they simply abandon the public schools and send their children to private schools that charge up to $30,000 a year. Oddly enough, many of these people are willing to spend this sum for their own bairns, but balk at such largesse when other people’s children are involved, insisting “money will not improve the schools.” Private schools across the country have class sizes roughly half that of public schools, and per pupil costs that are roughly double, as shown by the School Finance 101 blog.

What sorts of schools exist in banana republics?
Highly stratified, just like the society. The very wealthy send their children to private schools of privilege, just as is becoming the norm here. The poor go to schools where they are daily reminded of their inferiority. How many ways do we have to remind our students of their academic inferiority? Could this be an unconscious or sub-rosa part of the high stakes we now attach to test scores? Is this perhaps part of the reason schools, teachers and communities are stigmatized when schools are condemned as failures and dropout factories? Our schools are inevitably mirrors of the society in which they function.

I must add here, lest I be accused of adopting a fatalistic stance, that I believe schools have a powerful role to play in cushioning the blows of poverty, of lifting the aspirations of our students beyond their circumstances. But everywhere in school reform these days we hear of the need for “urgency,” as if the reason that previous generations of educators failed to eliminate the achievement gap was a lackadaisical attitude, or persistent low expectations. Not so. Unfortunately, although schools can make a difference, poverty and a genuine lack of opportunity usually trumps our efforts.

The intense discomfort the “school reformers” have with our low-performing schools may reflect our unwillingness to recognize that yes, we have a growing underclass in the United States. Yes, we have a burgeoning strata of society that no longer can even grasp the bottom rung of the economic ladder. We can blame the schools for this, but the schools did not create this situation, and getting everyone ready for college and careers will not fix it. Only when we get our economy back onto firm ground and restore some balance, so the wealthy are paying their fair share of taxes, and the middle class can survive and prosper, and the poor can truly access the ladder to success, only then will we see hope return to our students and see the gaps in achievement really begin to close.

Special thanks to teacherken for highlighting these issues in his blogs.

What do you think? Are we becoming a banana republic? Do our schools reflect this as well?

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.