One of my sons is looking at private schools for his ten-year-old son. The elementary school the boy has been attending has been fine, but in the city, where they live, the quality of public education begins to slip in middle school. They can move to the more affluent suburbs for a good public school, or they can go private. For $25,000 per year. Gulp.
If you can afford private school tuition, or the the price of a house in a rich public school district, you and your children are in luck. In not...well, your kid’s not out of the game, but she can't be average, in motivation or intelligence, if she hopes to compete for college spots with the rich kids. They might not be brighter, but they've got money, and all that money brings: a stable and supportive environment, parents and teachers who have high hopes and expectations for their students.
There was another op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday about how segregated public schools have become, particularly in Ferguson, Missouri, and how tough it is for the black kids there who are offered a substandard education compared the their richer neighbors. (“How School Segregation Divides Ferguson—and the United States.”) Here in Palo Alto, California, the public schools are first rate, but right across the freeway, not a mile away, the largely Hispanic East Palo Alto schools struggle for resources and achievement.
Vignettes like those make it sound like racial discrimination is afoot, but if it is it is only indirectly. The problem is not fundamentally one of race, but of economics. According to the Pew Research Center, the median wealth of white families today is thirteen times that of black households, and ten times that of Hispanic’s. There are plenty of poor white families too. And most of the children in those poor families—black, white and brown—aren’t getting the education they deserve. Not because of the bigotry that oppressed blacks in the Jim Crow South. Because of money.
Have money: get a good education, breed, repeat. Have no money: go directly to the daily struggle for existence from which you and your children have a hard time looking up.
There have always been classes, likely always will be. But lately we’re making class differences worse, not better. It’s not right. And it’s not smart. A large, undereducated population is not going to help us innovate and thrive. If only out of self-interest, we desperately need to offer everyone good public education.
The problem is, the people who can fix the problem have only that abstract long-term incentive to do so. We’re not good at abstract long-term incentives (see, e.g., global warming). We get to work when we feel the pressure, when we’ve got skin in the game. So how to give the ruling class skin in the game. Get rid of private schools. At least up through high school.
The notion is positively un-American. I know that. But what’s happening is un-American too. The rich are packing up and leaving the rest behind. For the workers who build our houses, who used to build our cars, who came here from all over the world seeking opportunity, the ladder is bing pulled up. That’s not us. At least I hope it’s not.
Skin in the game means the well-off have to send their kids to public schools. And not just good ones. Somehow, perhaps with a lottery system, we need the movers and shakers to think their kid could end up in any of one of several schools in their area. So it wouldn't do to fix up one school and leave the others in disrepair. Your son might end up at any of them; better make them all good.
As for getting private schools in the first instance, well, that’s a tall order. High taxes on them might be a good starting point. The rationale would be like any tax meant to deal with a negative externality (e.g. a carbon tax), with the negative externality in this case being the education safe havens for scions of the elite, safe havens that leave their influential parents with little incentive to improve public education.
We can do anything. We know that. We do it all the time. But we have to care. And the lesser education opportunity of others just doesn’t seem to be stirring enough of us. We need to bring it home. We need to make it about our kids. Then we’ll get to work on the problem. Our kid will get a good education, and so will everyone else’s. That’s opportunity. That’s why we all came to America. That’s what will keep it the place everyone wants to be, a shining example to the world of what we can do when we pitch in together. Even when we’re only doing it because we have to.