Goldstein: Uneducated, Unfree

Many Americans are without quality education, so how can we call them free?

by Matthew Goldstein | 4/6/17 12:30am

The first installment of this series posited a divide between freedoms the United States purports to afford its citizens and the actual ways in which pervasive, structural features of American life restrict opportunities for those citizens. Perhaps the most important manifestation of this divide is in the American education system. Vast inequities in the quality of primary and secondary education across district lines, stemming from the fundamental ways the United States has understood the burden of educating its youth, beget vicious cycles of poverty. The rising cost of a college degree, necessary for any job that might propel one to a higher socioeconomic stratum, means the rich benefit while the poor grapple with either debt or ignorance.

The idea of equal opportunity is central to the mythos of the American Dream. It is therefore not unreasonable to assert that it factors heavily into the American conception of freedom. Indeed, social mobility was the draw for millions of immigrants wanting a warm welcome for “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The promise of a new life resulted in the rags-to-riches stories that form part of the backbone of our national consciousness. In the land where 13-year-old emigre Andrew Carnegie could start out working in a cotton mill and became the wealthiest industrialist this side of Scotland, anything could happen.

But the world is not stagnant, and today that 13-year-old emigre could not start work, parlaying small successes into slightly larger ones. He would — with good reason — have to attend school until at least age 16. If he then dropped out, his employment prospects would be low-paid, if they existed at all. If he decided to stay in school, he would face university tuition costs that would either discourage attendance or burden him with debt well into his later years. Absent extraordinary athletic skill or gifted work ethic and intelligence, education is that 13-year-old’s only path to opportunity. And opportunity, in America, is integral to freedom.

America’s federal system puts the burden for primary and secondary education on states. States, in turn, have in large part decided that public schools should be funded mainly by their districts’ property taxes. In general, about half of any public school’s funding comes from local government in this way. Most of the rest comes from the state, and a small share — about 13 percent — comes from the federal government. Furthermore, states retain control over curricula and textbooks, mandating the content of what pupils in their respective schools learn.

This setup presents a number of problems. First, the more school funding comes from local sources, the greater the chance that a school district’s resources will not change over time. The homes in a poor school district are worth less than those in rich districts, so fewer tax dollars reach those districts’ local governments. This means worse facilities and fewer resources for the students in their schools. Inadequately funded, these districts will send fewer students to college. Without the mobility that money affords, many students will work and live in those same districts, eventually owning homes of their own and paying the meager property taxes their parents once did. Low-income Americans can support only poor schools, and poor schools produce generations of poverty; it is an intractable cycle.

This problem exists at the state level as well. Numbers of school staff, teachers’ salaries and student achievement levels vary greatly by state, affording a child in, say, Arizona a worse education than her friend a few miles away in New Mexico. What’s more, one state might choose to educate its students with a textbook that glosses over a topic commonly accepted as important, such as evolution. One state’s inadequate resources or questionable curricular content may put its students at a comparative disadvantage in the hunt for college admission and, eventually, jobs.

Even if a student overcomes the odds stacked against her in an underfunded school district, she faces the daunting task of finding some way to pay for the college education that will be her ticket upwards. In the name of free markets, universities continue to increase tuition by about 3 percent each year. The most expensive colleges in the nation can cost more than $70,000 per year. A choice is thus put forth to the aspiring but resource-strapped student: skip school and find a job or secure loans to pay for an education. In the former case, as we have seen, that student’s opportunity and mobility will be limited. In the latter case, while that student may go on to get a job that in theory enables social mobility, she will be burdened by debts that may make it difficult in practice to exercise that mobility.

The constraints of this column prevent a more in-depth analysis of the ongoing issues — and, indeed, the explication of any workable remedy. However, two points are clear and intuitive on a broad conceptual level: first, sufficient education is necessary in America for the kind of opportunity that, in part, comprises our conception of freedom. Second, that level of education is sorely lacking for people who, by accident of birth, live in certain areas or under particular economic constraints. These premises point us to an inevitable conclusion. The freedoms to which we refer when we speak of opportunity have been subjugated to the freedoms that allow private institutions to charge unimaginable sums for course credits and states to choose how their schools are funded and run. We should rather be guided by the practical effects of policy on people — effects that, we see, speak loud and clear. They’re just waiting for us to listen.

This is the second article in “Liberty Abridged,” a series of columns by the author about American conceptions of freedoms and the laws that are purported to advance those ideals.