Want To ‘Fix America?’ Public Education Is Where We Begin.

I’m back from a two-week hiatus. Much to my wife’s chagrin (she tells me I’m on my phone too much), I had ample time from all of the flight delays and such to keep up with the latest controversies in education reporting. Let me tell you, this op-ed from The Atlantic entitled “Better Public Schools Won’t Fix America” takes the cake.

The piece made its virtual rounds these past few weeks as a hard-hitting critique of school improvement efforts. The author, Nick Hanauer, tells the story of his work as a once-unfettered supporter of curriculum and teacher evaluation reform. Hanauer worked with some of the top nonprofit and philanthropic organizations in the country to fund new schools and innovations that he believed would help flatten the road for America’s youth to find prosperity through education. And now, he says his entire mindset was wrong; that improving public schools won’t fix the increasingly visible inequities we’re seeing across the country.

All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools — if we modernized our curricula and our teaching methods, substantially increased school funding, rooted out bad teachers, and opened enough charter schools — American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again. Graduation rates and wages would increase, poverty and inequality would decrease, and public commitment to democracy would be restored. But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong. And I hate being wrong.

Hanauer goes on to make his case that it’s income inequality, not school quality, that’s responsible for the nation’s ills. And while I ultimately disagree with Hanauer’s argument, he has a point there. Right now, we’re living in a country where the top 1% of all earners have more wealth than the bottom 90% combined.

My readership consists of good folks from all across the political spectrum, and I’m not looking to dive headfirst into any debates on economic theory or marginal income tax rates. However, what I do want to talk about is the importance of that inequality.

Household income has been long regarded as one of the most predictive metrics of a child’s academic success; in other words, children who come from affluent homes are significantly more likely to succeed in their K-12 years and pursue postsecondary education than those children in low-income households. Hanauer is right to emphasize this in his piece, because no kid should have to face labels or low expectations for circumstances they can’t control. Instead, Hanauer’s mistake rests in the false dichotomy that he implies later on in the piece, seemingly suggesting that we can either have robust educational investment or a strong approach to fighting income inequality, but not both.

I’m not about to vomit my political beliefs all over the place, so let me just paraphrase my colleague Chad Aldeman in saying that I’m pretty sure there’s a way to walk and chew gum at the same time.

In fact, one could argue that we’ll have to do that to fix the problems that ail our country, simply because they are so deeply interconnected. There can be no good conversation about discipline reform that doesn’t also involve mental health, for example, just as there can be no discussion about equity in urban schools that doesn’t also focus on racial justice. I applaud Hanauer’s thoughtful approach in considering the implications of income inequality, but putting all of his eggs in that basket opens the floodgates for a very slippery slope.

I’m not arrogant enough to claim that schools are the answer for all of society’s flaws, but I deeply believe that an effective, well-funded, and student-centered public education system is the most solid foundation we have to build upon. And if we can’t all agree on that, fixing America might take even more work than we realized.

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