How long can America afford to pay the ignorance tax?
March 31, 2016
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Today I read yet another blog post that recycles a really tired claim: school reformer’s believe poverty doesn’t matter.

In truth, I’ve never met a “school reformer,” or anyone, who believes that.

But, speaking for myself only, I believe no scheme to fight poverty is complete without effective school systems that increase capacityknowledge, and skills within poor communities.

The $600 billion we pump into K12 schools is a major investment in fighting poverty. What’s so wrong with focusing intently on making sure that the money results in educated children?

Maybe I’m old school. I still believe public education is a true pathway out of poverty, the great equalizer, and the sine qua non of a fair society.

Most Americans agree, but we’ve lost some of our fellow believers. They’re fatigued because integrating schools, boosting budgets, and expanding educational services to broader populations of kids didn’t end racial and economic marginalization.

The experiment failed. Our schools are still segregated. Bigger budgets and a smaller ratio of teachers to students hasn’t improved overall results. And, getting more kids into compulsory education hasn’t lifted all boats.

If I’m a liberal from back in the day, I’m looking for a stiff drink, or a rationale for why my most cherished social remedies make people economically ill.

Maybe education wasn’t the answer at all. Maybe broken people can’t be made unbroken by schools. Maybe the answer is to let public education off the hook for an impossible task – teaching the underclass – and instead, let’s focus on increasing welfare and social policies that make menial work pay better and make dead-end jobs offer better benefits so they are less dead endy.

Since we can’t reduce ignorance through education, aren’t we better off insuring against mass ignorance with more generous subsistence programs?

It’s sad that we’ve come to a time when it’s progressives who have lost belief in human potential that is poorly developed in impoverished communities.

I reject that inevitability of poverty and I don’t think low skills and poor education are immutable. I don’t believe we have to accept the existence of workforce ghettos where people without college degrees or post-secondary credentials must linger indefinitely.

I support social supports to low-wage workers and under-resourced communities, but not as an alternative to better schools. Those campaigns are a compliment to the fight for effective education.

Let’s call out two things: first, school reformers have been right all along to assert demography is not destiny. It’s classist and morally backward to suggest otherwise.

Second, it’s a lie that people who haven’t succeeded so far have failed because they are deficient, broken, or incapable. To the contrary, they are capable learners, and we have sufficient evidence to say good systems can help them reach their potential.

There is a danger to considering an entire class of people doomed to lower stations in life.  People stuck in the underclass need every lifeline out, and education is a damn good one.

The real cost of ignorance

The U.S. has millions of jobs that will go unfilled because too few Americans are prepared for them. Good paying jobs with benefits. Poverty-ending jobs. But, there’s a catch. These jobs are for people who can read, write, count, reason, and become proficient in new industries. Candidates must graduate high school and get some post-secondary education.

Oh, and they need some skills too.

The fight to increase proficiency and to measure it isn’t a theoretical issue to volley back and forth about. In the long run, it can pay the rent and put food on the table.

According to the National Skills Coalition the largest section of America’s job market is for jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree (so-called “middle jobs“).

The cost of unfilled jobs is estimated at $160 billion annually.

We can bemoan the loss of the middle class or the bygone era of the good factory job people used to get back in the day when a high school diploma still was worth something, or we can seize on the opportunities that exist today.

Consider the alternative. In cities like Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose, and Palo Alto where a skilled elite are amassing personal wealth while many native-born residents – mostly poor and of color – in those same cities we’ll never know how the other half-lives, the biggest stratification is between the educated and the un-educated. The latter group is getting a bum deal in their own city. At best, they will mow the lawns, clean the condos, and nanny the babies of the economically elect.

There is a real cost to ignoring a sputter system of public schools and favoring after care for the victims. It’s a tax we all pay on mass ignorance.

According to Strong American Schools the costs of remedial education is about $2.3 billion each year.

The Alliance for Excellent Education suggests that reducing the need for remediation could generate an extra $3.7 bil­lion annually.

As states rich as Minnesota and poor as Louisiana have black fourth graders with reading proficiency rates in the teens (Minnesota = 18%, Louisiana = 17%), we have to consider the consequences of those numbers, and the urgency of improving education.

That becomes more real when you consider the fact that 85% of young people engaged with the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate.

There is a cost for ignoring the fact that schooling isn’t working, and failing to acknowledge that it is possible to do better.

The costs -human and financial – to decoupling public school outcomes from the broader effort to address poverty is immorally high.

You can’t opt out of that now how hard you close your middle class eyes and wish it away.

It’s one tax I’m unwilling to pay.

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