Closing the Wealth and Achievement Gaps
School reformers and justice advocates can work together
Imagine an African-American or Latino charter school graduate attending an elite liberal arts college. He or she will probably take out loans and have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet as a college student. Because folks aren’t hiring, that graduate gets a late start finding his first job, which negatively impacts his future earnings. So the loan-strapped student looks for a teaching position in an urban district but is turned down because he or she doesn’t have the same GPA as someone who didn’t have to have jobs in college.
These are not excuses. These are the people of the recession. These are the people on the negative side of the wealth gap.
Market-driven school reformers consistently discredit progressive educators for pointing to poverty as a root cause for the achievement gap. “Poverty is not an excuse” has become a slogan used to replace educators who view inadequate housing, drug-dependent parents or an incarcerated father as significant factors for low performance.
For the job seeker who came from an impoverished background and had to work through college, the response from many reformers is, “These are adult issues we can’t address.”
Reminder: students become adults. Students have adult caretakers. Statistically speaking, income and wealth are still some of the biggest predictors of academic success. The achievement gap closes with rises in income.
Money may not be the primary cause of low educational achievement, but calling poverty an excuse may be easy to say when you are 20 times wealthier than the black and brown students you serve.
According to a new report issued by the Pew Research Center, the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households based on 2009 data. This has tremendous implications in school reform debates. In many cities, the contentious battle over charter schools and school takeovers fall along the wealth gap, which happens to be racialized. White, out-of-town reformers are increasingly taking higher shares of middle-class education jobs.
If school reformers are as data-driven as many claim, wealth accumulation and inequities in all forms of human capital have to be factored into our education agendas.
As a descendant of those who were denied the right to have an education, I deeply appreciate viewing education as an emancipator and equalizer. As someone who helped manage charter schools, I also know the focus that’s needed to give students an opportunity to live a mainstream life.
However, reformers’ unwillingness to form coalitions with those who are dealing with inequities in housing, employment and wealth is an outright abrogation of responsibility to work for the collective civil rights of whom they serve.
Wealth is the sum of one’s assets minus debts. Blacks and Latinos were disproportionately impacted by the housing crash and recession because most of their assets were drawn from their homes. As a result, black and Latino households lost well over half of their wealth during the period. Therefore, instead of using equity to pay tuition for primary, secondary or post-secondary education, black and Latino families must seek out loans (if they qualify) to have educational options similar to their white peers. Additionally, higher loan debt is a shovel that digs a deeper wealth hole.
Across the country, school reformers have turned a color-blind eye to teacher worker rights. Historically, teaching positions comprised a significant portion of jobs that made up the black middle class. Meanwhile, Teach for America, charter management organizations, and other national alternative certification programs disproportionately hire white teachers, who in many cases receive school loan forgiveness.
Don’t get me wrong, I would never discourage radical education reform. If schools in our urban centers aren’t transformed, families will not have an opportunity to climb out of poverty. However, I strongly hope that education reformers form coalitions with groups who seek need-based scholarships, tuition breaks, housing tax breaks for first-generation college students, and tuition for incarcerated adults.
At the very least, stop saying, “poverty is an excuse.”
Without question, teachers must teach and principals can only do so much. Educating the student in front of you should be the primary goal. However, we can’t be so myopically focused that we forget that we are ultimately trying to build stronger families, communities and societies. Trust me, we can have educated, people in debt.