Hope and change in schooling are sorely needed
Elitism and egalitarianism in education
Courtland Milloy suggests at the Washington Post that D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s vision for the D.C. school system is both inspiring and quixotic.
Milloy quotes Rhee as suggesting that elitism, “reluctance by the city’s haves to share classrooms with the have-nots,” is the single largest obstacle to school reform. Overcoming elitism, Warren Buffet once suggested to Rhee, would simply require the abolition of private schools and assignment of all children to public schools by random lottery. The argument goes that well-to-do parents would force schools to improve if they were denied the choice of where to send their children.
Ironically, elitism would militate against the opposite solution as well. Suppose all public schools were abolished and poor families given vouchers and scholarships to attend private schools like their wealthier peers. Milton Friedman’s solution is the polar opposite of Buffett’s –improve education by giving rather than denying choice to all. But in this case, elites too would have to put up with the prospect of rubbing shoulders with the rabble. If elitism is indeed the major roadblock to reform, then this solution, conceptually just as radical, is practically just as unrealistic.
Regardless of what solutions ultimately prevail, it would be nothing short of tragic for existing striations in education to persist. In D.C., more than a third of residents are functionally illiterate; nationally, more than a fifth of Americans are. We do not compare favorably with other industrialized countries.
Income inequality is at an 80-year high, and has been widening in the United States since the 1970s. The starkest gap lies between the poorest and everyone else, and not surprisingly education is a chief determinant of income. Unemployment among the
functionally illiterate is three to five times the national average. Functional illiteracy is also highly associated with crime and dependency on public assistance. Most disturbingly, the ranks of the functionally illiterate have been growing, not shrinking.
This problem will only worsen as the United States becomes more heavily invested in global commerce. As living standards rise for some Americans and the rest of the world catches up with the industrialized West, the segment of our population that lacks basic literacy, numeracy, and marketable skills will eventually slip into Third World living standards. It does not take a principled egalitarian to imagine the social and political problems that will ensue.
If Rhee and Buffett are right that elitism is the roadblock to educational reform, then the specter of a horrible future should be the wake-up call the elites need.
-Image by Fickr user Center for American Progress used under a Creative Commons Attribution License