In the age of rising inequality, we've turned education into a kind of technocratic talisman. It's what will make people more productive and higher earners. It's what will help them escape the rising acidic vat of economic insecurity that Americans are all desperately scrambling to stay above.
But education isn't like that. It's not a science. It's the art of raising new human beings. "[Local schools] orient us to our own histories, anchors of continuity in the places where we were from. Schools are where young people first learn how to interact with their communities in official and personal capacities," Gene Demby recently wrote at NPR's Code Switch, reflecting on his own elementary school in downtown Philadelphia. "Our schools are signposts in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our communities."
But precisely because education is deeply personal and human, it is easy to produce a knotted conflict involving race, class, community, and upward mobility whenever education policy gets turned into the great cure-all for economic inequity.
Take a showdown over two public schools going on in Brooklyn, New York, right now. Public School 8 (P.S. 8) is mostly white and well-off, and its scores are well above the city average. Public School 307 (P.S. 307) is overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, much poorer, and its scores are less than stellar. But P.S. 8 is badly overcrowded, so the borough of Brooklyn is looking to rezone so some of P.S. 8's students go to P.S. 307 instead.
According to an account in The New York Times, some of the white upper-class parents at P.S. 8 are none too happy about this. And if you're so inclined, you can certainly read this as an ugly portrait of the way people — who no doubt think of themselves as good, broad-minded progressives — turn to xenophobic, social-hygienic panic at the thought of their children attending school with those kids.
But a fair amount of research suggests the quality of communities and schools is enormously important for the life outcomes of children raised in them, and the sooner a child can be moved from a broken community to a healthy one, the better. This confirms something that ought to be intuitively obvious: The collective socioeconomic health of a given community is enormously important to how individuals do in it. Take a child out of a setting — be it a neighborhood or school — that's economically deprived and socially dysfunctional, and plug them into a setting that's richer, and suddenly they'll start to flourish. Shocking.
But this also provides a certain defense of the parents in P.S. 8 — their children are being taken from a more healthy setting and placed in a less healthy one. Given the intense meritocratic anxiety our society has about education these days, it's hardly surprising they're getting a bit nasty over it.
But where the plot really thickens is that some of the parents at P.S. 307 are opposed to rezoning, too. "We fought hard to build this school, and we’re not just going to let people come from outside when we worked so hard and dedicated ourselves," one mother told a meeting, according to the Times. She continued that she had "no problem working with anybody, but I’m not going to let anybody take from my daughter." The Brooklyn neighborhoods around P.S. 8 and P.S. 307 have been gentrifying. So the parents at P.S. 307 understandably worry that this is one more sign that their own communities will be displaced.
Furthermore, the school reform movement tends to look at the research around communities and schools and upward mobility, and conclude that the solution is to close failing schools in poor areas. Then break open the successful schools, so the students from the shuttered schools can attend them. But the often poor, often not-white families the reformers aim to help sometimes fight this process tooth and nail. A community in Chicago actually went on hunger strike when their public high school was shut down at the end of last school year. Why? Because this "solution" dissolves the communal bonds Demby talked about. It takes the fully human process of educating a new generation, abstracts it into a technical matter of atomized individuals and their inputs and outputs, and then flings them to the winds.
"Why can't we have public schools," asked one of the Chicago protesters in Demby's account. "Why do low-income minority students need to have their schools run by private contractors? We want this school to anchor the community for the next 75 years." These people don't want their school to be shuttered so they can go elsewhere. They want their school healed so they can stay.
What sits behind all this is our society's total failure to tackle economic inequality head on. We've had 40 years without full employment — of declining wages, brutal recessions, and jobless recoveries. So of course the social fabric of the hardest-hit communities comes apart. Marriages fail and families break up. Then poverty exposes children to psychological stress and health threats like lead paint and pollution, and deprives them of the nutrition they need.
The public schools are then expected to step in and be everything to everyone: a safe psychological and emotional space for the students; a place for them to stay after school as well, rather than wander into dangerous neighborhoods; and a place for them to get the food, eyeglasses, and more they can't afford elsewhere. (By all accounts, poor families pick their schools largely based on whether they can supply these needs.) And the schools have to maintain good academic scores on top of all this to keep the bean counters happy.
All this requires public schools to be a counterbalancing force to all the other challenges besetting their neighborhoods. But we run school funding largely through property taxes and state government budgets, which means the economic fates of public schools get dragged down with the fates of their communities and the business cycle. So the schools of privileged Americans flourish, while of course the schools of Americans left behind by the economy buckle under the pressure.
There's a lot going on between those two Brooklyn schools, drawing on the less pleasant aspects of human nature. But the foundational reality on which everything else rests is that the families at P.S. 8 have much and the families of P.S. 307 have much less. If you're not trying to solve that, you're not trying to solve the problem.