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Getting a “3rd World” Education Right Here at Home?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The 2012 Presidential election season kicked off with a bang last week with education being the unexpected central issue in the first barrage of campaigning in what should shape up to be an exciting summer and fall. While neither candidate is particularly teacher or teacher union friendly (Washington Post, 25 May, 2012), former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was first on the offensive with his assault on education, teachers and their unions:

"Millions of kids are getting a third-world education. And America’s minority children suffer the most. . .This is the civil-rights issue of our era. And it’s the great challenge of our time. . .The teachers’ unions are the clearest example of a group that has lost its way . . . The teachers unions don’t fight for our children." (23 May, 2012)

Is our educational system so bad as to be labeled "3rd World" by an individual who aspires to lead the country? Such a statement is certain to alienate one of the largest unions in the country and won’t inspire confidence in the millions of parents who currently send their children to these schools. Candidate Romney’s plan to fix this situation – vouchers –  a time-tested recipe for making a bad situation worse. Here’s why.

Mitt Picking
For starters do we really want an individual representing our nation who doesn’t even realize that calling other countries "3rd World" is offensive to them? This man is supposed to be a diplomat, and he doesn’t know that undeveloped and developing countries don’t want to be considered as separate "worlds" from the one Mr. Romney lives in. The rest of the world’s leaders must have just experienced a collective cringe at the prospect of dealing with this individual on a global stage.

Despite that particular misspeaking, I am in agreement with the Republican Presidential Candidate’s assertion that inequitable public education is the "civil rights issue of our era." I write about this very issue regularly in this space in posts such as, How Educational Inequality Affects Us All, so if anyone is sympathetic to the idea that our educational system is failing our students and our society, it should be me. But the ideas being floated around by Romney about both why our education is "3rd World" and how to fix it, run contrary to what anyone with an understanding of how education works or who has a concern about the long-term viability of the system, would ever imagine. Here is a look at Romney’s plans to save education from itself and how an implementation of his ideas would actually be leading us on the path to offering something more akin to "3rd World" education than away from it.

The Real Civil Rights Issue
A significant part of Romney’s plan is that vouchers will be the answer to helping disadvantaged students escape the circumstances they find themselves in. That may be true for a very small percentage of students, but vouchers are not a proven solution for helping ALL students achieve educational equality. Here’s why not:

  • Access to "better" schools – A majority of the failing schools in the U.S. are located in disintegrating urban centers or are remotely rural, and all are located in areas that are extremely impoverished such as East St. Louis, Detroit, or Appalachia (The 10 Poorest High Schools in the U.S.). In these areas, there is not necessarily a "better" school available for students to attend. Take Central High School in Detroit for example – it is number seven on Online Universities.com’s list of The 10 Poorest High Schools in the U.S. Students could leave this failing school and choose to attend one of the 44 other failing schools in the city (Seetharaman, 20 July, 2011).
  • Transportation to "better" schools – Even if there are one or more excellent schools nearby that students could use their vouchers to choice into, there is still the issue of getting to those schools. Generally speaking, transportation is not provided for those electing to attend a school other than the one they are districted for. So that leaves the responsibility for transporting the students to their parent(s), who may have conflicting work schedules, or may not own a car; public transportation, which is not a realistic option for elementary students; carpooling if multiple students are choicing into the same school; or taking a taxi, a cost-prohibitive option, particularly for those coming from impoverished neighborhoods.
  • Politics of attending a "better" school – In a capitalist, bootstrap, me-first country, there will be resistance to a mass migration of new students swarming the "better" schools in a district. One, two, or even a dozen students might be grudgingly accepted, but parents and teachers would be justifiably outraged to have dozens or even hundreds of new students suddenly swelling their classrooms and draining resources that are already in scarce supply. 
  • Socio-economic issues associated with attending a "better" school – Even in an ideal situation, where a student has chosen to attend a "better" school, can get there every day, and has been accepted into the community, there is still the potential for "outsiderism" if the new student is not from the same socio-economic class, race, or ethnicity as those of the dominant culture. The new arrival may feel alienated within a different culture and eventually "choose" to return to the school in which they feel more comfortable.
  • Not everyone can or would attend a "better" school – While the candidate may claim that his plan would make it a personal choice whether or not to attend a different school, the reality is that all of the factors above make it extremely unlikely, even impossible, for every disadvantaged or special needs student to go to a new school. There are too many social, economic, and logistical barriers to be overcome to make this a practical solution.
  • Resource drain on "bad" schools – There is a real probability that the most academically advanced students will be the first to leave these schools, creating a downward spiral of lowering test scores and an increasing rate of flight. Every student who leaves a struggling school is removing valuable resources from that school, eventually forcing its closure and stranding some students with no options.

Vouchers are a solution that aims to skim the best students from failing schools and which ultimately lead to those schools becoming even worse (when evaluated by standardized tests). Eventually, a policy like this is intended to either close struggling schools or to so completely strip them of resources that they can no-longer function. What happens to the students who couldn’t choose to attend a different school then?

An Alternative Solution
One member of a recent panel on MSNBC comprised of educators from Philadelphia asked, and I paraphrase, "Why is it acceptable for the schools in our neighborhoods to be bad schools? The real civil right issue is that all schools, even those for minority children, should be excellent schools. There shouldn’t be a need for our children to have to go somewhere else to receive a good education." The NEA – one of the groups under attack by Romney – has a proposal on the table to do exactly this by 2020.

There can be little doubt that we live in an extremely wealthy country, particularly when compared to the "3rd World’ countries that Romney references. The Central Intelligence Agency’s World Fact Book lists the United States as number two in the world in 2011 in GDP Purchasing Power at $15.04 trillion, just behind the combined EEU at $15.3 trillion (interestingly, we are number twelve in per capita GDP). However, despite this immense wealth, we spend only a miniscule amount on education. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that amount is approximately two percent of federal tax dollars (12, April, 2012).

Even given the small percentage of our Federal budget dedicated to what should be our most important national priority (Marquis, 17 April, 2012), candidate Romney wants to cut our education budgets even further than they have been during the economic crisis by implementing a voucher system that would drain valuable funding from the schools that need it most, rather than make high-quality, free public education for all students a national priority. Vouchers are not a realistic option for public education, but investing in the country’s future by funding education at an historic level is. We have great wealth in this nation, the solution is to convince those who control it that excellent education for everyone is the best strategy for ensuring a bright future for all.

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