Saturday, August 8, 2020
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US colleges favor the wealthy, not the smart

Presidential candidates talk quite a bit about wealth inequality these days, but the fact that a stupid rich student is more likely to graduate from college than a smart poor kid makes me think the economy is “rigged in favor of those at the top,” as Hillary Clinton said at the Democratic presidential candidate debate last week.


Bernie Sanders, Democratic presidential candidate, speaks about big banks, 2013 (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Senator Bernie Sanders continued, “That’s an economy where ordinary Americans are working longer hours for lower wages. They’re worried to death about the future of their kids. And, yet, they are seeing almost all new income and all new wealth going to the top 1 percent.”

Donald Trump, who now leads in polls in several early primary states and could very well become the Republican nominee for president, has also harped on wealth inequality in a way that seems to resonate with voters on the right side of the political spectrum.

On Face the Nation in August, Mr Trump said hedge fund managers don’t pay any taxes, “and it’s ridiculous. They make a fortune, they pay no tax, it’s ridiculous, OK? … The middle class is the one, they’re getting absolutely destroyed.”

This may not be earth-shattering news, but wealth inequality, which used to represent little more than a side issue in presidential campaigns—the American public having reached the conclusion long ago that a president is powerless, for the most part, to have any great impact on the state of the economy—has been painted as a force that works in direct opposition to the goals of democracy.

That’s not a new idea, either, but it has been given new life and a fresh look in the current presidential race.

“We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both,” former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said almost a hundred years ago during the Great Depression of the early 20th century.

But people, like Robert Putnam at Harvard University, hint at the notion that the advantages bestowed upon rich people, through no merit of their own, cause problems on which our federal and state governments do have an impact, either through lawmaking or enforcement efforts.

Those efforts may be missing the mark a little, targeting schools, for example, instead of the wealth inequality that only gets worse in America and, as we have learned, tends to short-circuit any work we do to sustain or fix broken schools. The differential graduation rates between dumb rich kids and smart poor kids happen, Mr Putnam says, not because of the schools, but “because of all the advantages that are available to rich kids.”

That begs the question, Why on Earth are we having educators tell us webpage after webpage of opinion about how to fix schools? Having one economist tell us how to fix wealth inequality will probably fix more schools as a result than hearing the sum total of teachers’ opinions about fixing the schools, at least at the national level. So bring on the economists!

The trick, as always, will come in developing a system that makes life better for ordinary Americans. And because of that, Mr Sanders’s campaign could be onto something. I can’t say what his chances are in a general election or even against Ms Clinton in the remaining Democratic primaries, but another leader like him, perhaps a younger version of himself or of Ms Clinton, is waiting in the wings of our political establishments. Such a candidate could ride on the coattails of Mr Sanders’s powerful mission against wealth inequality.

As for the Republicans, I also don’t know what Mr Trump’s chances are, but other populist candidates could very well ride his coattails as well. We have learned that wealth inequality, which is an issue, to be sure, resonates with voters in the US, and they will reward a candidate, almost of any stripe, that expresses at least a hope that wealth inequality can be diminished within these shores.

The days of a market economy, launched perhaps during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the drastic tax breaks he created for the wealthiest Americans, have brought us to this situation, from which our middle class is disappearing. It’ll be a whole new game if any candidate honestly thinks he or she can change that.

We have in Maryland and Illinois developed what we like to call “college- and career-ready standards.” We develop curricula around these more rigorous standards that reward kids for achieving certain tasks or demonstrating certain knowledge or skills. Despite growing pains, the tests used to measure those standards have been touted by several teachers of the year.

Then, those kids get out into the working world or go to college, and the tax breaks Mr Reagan installed, designed to reward the acquisition of capital, not the actual labor, work, or careers our students strive to develop, work against their every move, their every learning opportunity. Neither “college-ready” nor “career-ready” is even possible, given the fact that our daily lives are working in exactly the opposite direction.

I now see the whole debate over the Common Core State Standards and the tests used to measure them as being nothing more than an exercise, sometimes a military-like exercise, to divert our attention away from the real problem in our schools, the issue that thwarts smart students along their entire school career: wealth inequality.

College-ready and career-ready may be pointless

The economy pushes kids and their families, hard, in the opposite direction on both goals: Only by building capital, not really career skills, will they succeed in an economy driven by unfettered and untaxed markets. Only by building wealth will they succeed in colleges driven by such an economy. By that logic, our schools should focus on teaching kids how to acquire capital, not how to learn the standards in the Common Core, understanding of which our society of wealth inequality has stopped rewarding altogether.

Instead of rewarding people, giving them college degrees or promotions at work, based on the acquisition of skills, our society, driven by wealth inequality, has shifted to one that rewards people based on their acquisition of wealth. No life reward awaits students who develop strong skills in algebra and geometry, at least not in comparison to those that await them who build great wealth.

“What we have been seeing is rising inequality with stagnant mobility, which means that the consequences of where you start out, whether it’s in a poor neighborhood, whether it’s from a single-parent household, are more consequential today than in the past. Your ZIP code and the exact characteristics of your parents seem to matter more,” says Lawrence Katz, an economics professor in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “And that’s quite disturbing.”

We can make all the federal education laws we want, but if our lives are taking us to a different place, none of it will matter, and our schools, like our wages, will stagnate, along with our collective intelligence.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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