Who is the We in American Public Education?

In 2006 Dave Eggers published a powerful non-fiction novel called What is the What? based on the difficult path of one of the “lost boys” dislocated during the second Sudanese civil war. With respect to the difficult path of many boys and girls in American public education, now and in the future, another question comes to mind: ‘who is the we?’

There are four factors to consider.

First, our students. Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education recently led the department to project that for the first time most children attending the nation’s public schools this year are non-white. Moreover, the Southern Education Foundation, employing state-level data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, issued a report in January stating that in 2013 a majority of students enrolled in America’s public schools were classified as low income. More specifically, the report found that the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs in 2013 had risen to 51 percent  (from 42 percent in 2006 and 48 percent in 2011). The rise in recent years was in part the result of a broadening of eligibility standards, but most reasonable people would consider the students covered under the new criteria to be “low income” and therefore deserving of aid. After all, granting free lunches to students residing in households whose income is less than 135 percent of the poverty threshold, and reduced-price meals for those residing in households within 185 percent of the poverty threshold hardly seems profligate.

Secondly, some data relating to aggregate population and wealth-holding patterns. As the nation’s   public schools become darker and poorer, the U.S. as a whole is becoming older, with older age cohorts in the U.S. much whiter than younger cohorts. Moreover, studies of household wealth-holding patterns in the U.S. have demonstrated that median household wealth rises with age of householders in the U.S. at least through the ages of 65-69, before beginning to decline a bit (though remaining, even after 75. far higher than households in all cohorts under 65). They also show that median wealth levels of white households are significantly higher in all age cohorts than those for Black and Hispanic households, with the racial gap widening as households age.

Thirdly, findings regarding age-specific and race-specific voting behavior. In the U.S., participation in elections by cohorts comprised of middle-aged and senior voters is consistently higher than levels for younger voting cohorts. As for race, blacks—at least in the last two presidential elections—have voted at about the same rate as whites (actually at a slightly higher rate in 2012), with both groups voting at much higher rates than Hispanics.

Fourthly, patterns relating to social spending. Several takeaways from UC-Davis economist Peter Lindert’s landmark 2-volume comparative study Growing Public: Social Spending and  Growth Since the Eighteenth Century (2004), are relevant, two positive and another, not so much. Lindert’s main finding, broadly speaking, is that the efficiency costs of investment in education and social welfare, contrary to the assumptions of many neo-classically oriented economists, historically have been small.

Regarding investment in public education per se, Lindert found that prior to the 20th century the U.S. and Germany were the leaders, largely because of widespread voting rights and the fact that both places were characterized by local control of schools. What about the situation in the US today? Despite some recent efforts to constrain voting rights, such rights are still relatively widespread and, despite federal inroads, local districts still exercise considerable sway over their schools.

One other finding by Lindert, however, offers less support to those supportive of social spending. He found that since World War II the countries that have invested most robustly in education and social welfare have been pretty homogenous—Scandinavia in particular. In other words, taxpayers around the world generally like their taxes to go for programs helping people like themselves, and historically have voted accordingly.

To return to my opening question, will the older cohorts of the US population — whiter and wealthier than the population as a whole — vote into office people who will support robust investment in education and other forms of human capital (health and social welfare) for darker and poorer populations?

There are plenty of reasons (selfless and selfish) for investing in education and social welfare, according to recent observers (from Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam to Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell). One can point to lofty Rawlsian notions of fairness and social justice or to matters more material: but unless today’s young get decently educated, they aren’t going to be in position to keep the U.S. economy operating at a high level, much less to contribute to the needs of retirees.

Polls have shown that a large majority of Americans say they believe in equality of opportunity, though not of outcome. People interpret equality of opportunity in different ways, either narrowly and formally, or broadly and substantively. In the former case, non-discrimination is the goal; in the latter, what counts is rendering more equal the conditions in which people start out in life. Investment in education, including pre-school education, is one of the best ways to narrow gaps relating to birth. Which way will we have it, America, and who is the we?

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History, and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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Peter A. Coclanis teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill. He does not speak for the university.

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