Condoleezza Rice spoke at the Republican National Convention tonight, and one statement really resonated with me: “…kids – most often minorities -- are trapped in failing neighborhood schools. This is the civil rights struggle of our day.“ The civil rights struggle of our day. If you don’t believe this to be true, I would invite you to think about it for a moment. In fact, I would contend that K-12 education holds the keys to not only greater racial parity but income mobility in general (which is such a hot topic of late).
What is it that prevents children born into low-income neighborhoods from moving up in the world? Some could argue that it’s racism, but I would suggest that only contributes to a small fraction of the barrier these days. Corporations, being “cold and calculating,” gather the people that can best help them, not the people whose skin color they like. Sure, there are some issues like judgement based on elocution, but education plays a major part in that.
Access to college is less an issue than many would have you believe. Government loans and scholarships certainly afford access to qualified (or affirmative action) individuals. You could say that low-income individuals score poorly on standardized testing, but there’s K-12 education for you again.
Cultural and societal issues remain a major barrier. There are students who must drop out of high school to support families or students who are pressured out of high school by their peers. Some of this surely cannot be fixed by improving K-12 education, admittedly. Some of it can be addressed by providing a light at the end of the tunnel; providing some idea that the education they would receive is worthwhile (don’t kid yourselves, many of the teenagers who drop out of inner-city schools know their education is worthless).
What are the rich afforded that gives them such an advantages in life? You could say they have a safety net to start out which is nice, and a network that will help give them some opportunities, but by-and-large the thing they have is a great education. Prep schools, private schools, public schools that outperform inner-city schools by leaps and bounds. These are the true advantages that the wealthy experience, and the ones that help get them into the best colleges, kickstarting their careers. The schools for low-income kids lock them into their futures as well.
The world of business is a reasonably level playing field. Business thrives on merit, and those who don’t respect merit don’t last long at the top. The disparity between privilege and poverty is where you enter your career. A well-heeled entrant to the workforce has every advantage at the start, having been shaped for years for the task at hand and enters with ambition for the future. An under-priveleged entrant to the workforce starts with limited training, with limited knowledge, without the endorsement of a degree from a top college, and without hope. Sentenced to this struggle by an educational system that doesn’t even pretend to be fair to them.
So here’s a question you should ask yourself: If you dogmatically support the current public school hierarchy, and fight against vouchers or alternative solutions on the sheer principle of “protecting the system“, what results are you truly protecting? Are they the results of a neo-caste social system in which the under-educated remain on the bottom for life? Are they the results of continued achievement segregation? Are they the results of ensuring payment for union jobs at the expense of a terrible disservice to our economy, our citizens, and the American Dream? Don’t offer me the excuse that the system needs to be kept intact to “help the children.” If you want to help the children, focus on finding a way to fix the injustice of K-12 education. The “civil rights struggle of our time” as Condi put it, is one in which the children are currently being used as pawns.