Forget Wall Street. Go Occupy Your Local School District

Our nation's schools are a larger cause of economic inequality than investment banks and CEOs

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It’s easy to get angry at banks and CEOs, especially as more Americans slip below the poverty line while the rich keep getting richer. But if the goal of Occupy Wall Street is improving social mobility in this country, then the movement really needs to focus as much on educational inequality as it does on income inequality. There is perhaps no better example of how the system is rigged against millions of Americans than the education our children receive.

(MORE: What Makes a School Great)

Public schools are obviously not to blame for the mortgage crisis, over-leveraged investment banks or the other triggers of our current economic woes. But when it comes to giving Americans equal opportunity, our schools are demonstrably failing at their task. Today zip codes remain a better predictor of school quality and subsequent opportunities than smarts or hard work. When you think about it, that’s a lot more offensive to our values than a lightly regulated banking system.

What do I mean by educational inequality? We’re all familiar with achievement gaps between white kids and minorities. But here’s the income-based gap: just 8% of low-income students get a college degree by the time they are 24, while three-quarters of affluent students do. This has little to do with corporations, hedge funds or any of the other villains du jour. But make no mistake, outcomes like this kill economic mobility in this country.

So why are our schools, which should be an engine of opportunity, barely sputtering along?

Depending on whom you ask, you’ll hear that the problem is too little money. Or it’s too much money and too little performance. Or poverty. Or a lack of standards. Or lousy curriculums. Or teacher effectiveness. Or archaic rules and regulations. Or a lack of innovation. Or a lack of choice. Or too much power in the hands of the teachers’ unions. Or too little power in the hands of teachers.

In fact, in different places around the country, it’s all those things and others. But our tribal politics leave no room for that sort of nuance. Meanwhile, our politicians are either too skittish to take on special interests or too wrapped up in ideology to acknowledge that no single solution — e.g., school choice, ending the federal role in education or just addressing poverty — will fix our education system.

(MORE: Who’s Minding the Gap?)

So rather than take aggressive steps to create fairer funding systems for schools to give poor kids a shot, weed out bad teachers or jettison policies that have clearly outlived their usefulness, we have phony wars about teacher pay or No Child Left Behind that dance around the real issues. Just this week, a new report about New York highlighted how the state’s budget cuts will hit low-income schools almost three times as hard (losing $843 per pupil) as the wealthiest districts (losing just $269 per pupil). And earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune highlighted how the poorest school districts in Illinois spend just 30% of what the most affluent ones do. Many localities, including really poor ones, are still left to come up with much of the funding for their schools; in other places, the unfairness is due in part to state-funding formulas that actually favor affluent communities over low-income ones. Occupy that.

As people across the country struggle to find jobs in this economy, consider how public schools factor into unemployment rates in two states. In September, unemployment in Michigan was 11.1%, the third highest in the nation. In Massachusetts, it was 7.3%, below the national average of 9.1%. Those two states have both experienced substantial disruption to their economies. Massachusetts watched textiles and industry move south, and in Michigan the automobile industry has contracted. But the superior public schools in Massachusetts, which outpaces Michigan on a variety of measures, have no doubt been a key factor in that state’s ability to attract technology companies and other new industries. Good public schools not only create a competitive workforce but also create the kinds of communities where people relocate to work and where entrepreneurs can launch businesses.

A sad irony of Occupy Wall Street is that the movement is being embraced by teachers’ unions. The unions are hardly the only cause of our educational problems, but they’re not doing enough to fix them. In ways large and small, they defend practices and policies — things like how teacher pay is factored into the amount of money that is allotted to individual schools — that disadvantage low-income students. Can the Occupy movement square this circle? We’ll see.

(MORE: How Should We Pay Teachers?)

In any event, here’s my humble suggestion to all the protesters who are getting kicked out of Zuccotti Park and other places across the country: take your posters and your outrage and go occupy the central office of your local school districts and teachers’-union headquarters. Then demand the kind of radical change we need to create school systems that live up to our values rather than mock them. Our schools are a more sympathetic target than corporate CEOs, but for many Americans, they are a larger cause of economic injustice.

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