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Economic Bust, Schools, and Civil Rights

by ZoŽ Burkholder - October 13, 2008

An historical analysis of the relationship between schools and economic recessions highlights the need for the future president to make educational equity a defining platform of current economic reform and civil rights activism.

There is nothing like a major financial crash to shake up politicsor so Americans dare to hope as the recent economic disaster focuses media attention back on more substantial political issues at the heart of this election. Yet one of the most profound problems facing American policy makers has all but disappeared from public discourse this election seasoneducational reform.  In one of McCains more lucid moments, he noted that education is the civil rights issue of this century. For once I agree with McCain, but as an educational historian, alarm bells go off in my head as the nation heads deeper into an economic depression that promises forced budget cuts.  Because Americas public school system is connected to local tax bases, an economic depression means very real and sizable cuts to public schools that in too many cases are already strapped for cash. If the economy is tankinga point everyone except McCain seems ready to concedethen we need to be asking our politicians exactly how they plan to keep educational reform at the heart of a twenty-first century civil rights agenda?

Despite the emphasis that both Obama and McCain claim to place on educational reform, neither candidate has articulated a particularly visionary agenda to improve public schools. McCain proceeds from the perception that equal access to public education has been gained. This is just nonsense, as we know that nearly three-quarters of black and Latino students (73% and 77%, respectively) attend predominantly minority schools, or schools where more than half of the students are nonwhite. White students, in contrast, are the most racially segregated students in the nation, and most attend schools where only one out of five students are nonwhite. Social science data indicates the material differences between majority white schools and others, showing that segregated minority schools generally have fewer qualified teachers, higher teacher turnover rates, larger class size, fewer advanced classes, crumbling infrastructure, and fewer basic supplies (Orfield & Lee, 2007). So a more honest version of McCains statement about equal access to public education might read: equal access to public education has been gained by those middle-class citizens who can afford to relocate to a desirable school district, but is in effect still denied not only to poor black, Latino, and Asian American families, but to millions of poor white folks, too.  

McCain, it appears, is unable to grasp the most basic factors of educational inequality in the United States. This explains his approach to education as civil rights activism, which adopts a rigidly color-blind logic to insist the solution to failing public schools is school choice. School choice is a chimera invoked by nearly everyone, including Obama, to promise a seductively simple solution to generations of failing public schools in Americas inner cities and isolated rural regions. The general argument is that, the problem of failing public schools could be avoided, quite literally, by parents empowered with the choice to send their children to a better school. In and of itself this is a great ideaand one with tremendous appealexcept for the fact that it works quite poorly in practice. Take New York City for example. You might choose to send your child to a better public school, including a charter school, but chances are good the public schools are overcrowded by the time you apply while outstanding charter schools can only serve a tiny fraction of the public school population. Republicans, including McCain, support a more drastic version of school choice in the form of school vouchers. Proponents of vouchers offer parents a flat sum, usually around $10,000, to spend at any school of their choice including private schools. Applying a flawed interpretation of market capitalism, McCain imagines that vouchers will improve all public schools through the process of competition as parents decide where to spend their money. According to this logic, public schools either shape up or disappear as parents shop around for the best education. Americans with a lick of common sense recognize that $10,000 a year no longer buys very much in terms of private school tuition. The private school around the corner from my house in Arlington, Massachusetts, for example offers to educate my kindergartener for $25,000 a year, a price my friends in New York City find enviable. So what does $10,000 in public money buy in terms of private school educationit buys tuition at a subsidized, religious institution. Most public funds for school vouchers therefore get funneled into Catholic or evangelical Protestant private schools, a fact that has made voucher programs extremely susceptible to litigation citing the constitutional separation of church and state. Voucher programs are thus particularly bad solutions to the deplorable conditions of failing schools in America because they not only force families to choose between a poor quality public education or dogmatic religious education, but they also divert financial and social resources away from a foundational pillar of American democracy. A far better policy would attend to the delicate, but by no means impossible feat of repairing and bolstering public schools.

Improving public schools in America will require a combination of skillful policy making and grassroots social justice activism. It will also require something else: money. What sets failing public schools apart from better schools is usually as simple as a gigantic disparity in per pupil expenditure. In his recent book, Jonathan Kozol reported that public schools in some low-income districts spend as little as $8,000 per pupil per year, while just a few miles away suburban school districts spend more than $18,000 per pupil per year. Teacher salaries in inner-city and suburban school districts reflect similar disparitiesthe wealthier school districts paying salaries that are nearly twice as high as in economically depressed urban areas (Kozol, 2005). The results of this tremendous inequality are compounded by the fact that children living in poverty require more social services and educational intervention than their middle-class counterparts. In other words, inner-city public schools serving large numbers of poor students require higher levels of per capita spending than middle-class suburban schools, not less.

Here Obama seems to be on the right track, as his plans for educational reform include finally funding the No Child Left Behind law, expanding Head Start and affordable child care, and putting some money down on the table to recruit and retain qualified teachers. I think Obamas plan represents a good start but that it does not go far enough to secure public education for all. A better plan would use federal funds to equalize educational funding across the board, or better yet, ensure that failing schools get even more money than schools that are subsidized in countless ways by middle class families with the financial and cultural resources to invest in their childrens education. Finally, educational reform in America has to tackle some difficult questions about racial segregation and educational inequality in America. As the Supreme Court continues to chip away at local efforts to promote racial integration in K-12 schools, someone needs to make a public stand and demand educational reform that highlights racial inequality and centers a program of race-conscious efforts to equalize educational opportunity in America.  

Schools are a critical site of civil rights activism in the twenty-first century and as such they deserve a rigorous analysis that has been sorely missing from recent political commentary.  History tells us three things about educational policy in America. First, more equitable public schools are going to require a redistribution of economic resources. Second, economic depressions strip public schools of the financial support we need to enact desperately needed improvements. And third, racial segregation is rapidly increasing in American public schools and is directly correlated with profoundly unequal educational opportunity. Standing at the brink of what may be another great depression, these factors suggest we look very carefully at how educational reform should proceed over the next four years and that we demand our future leaders do the same.


Kozol, J. (2005). Shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Crown Publishers.

Orfield, G., & Lee, C. (2007). Historic reversals, accelerating resegregation, and the need for new integration strategies. A report of the Civil Rights Project UCLA: Retrieved September 30, 2008 from http://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/deseg/reversals_reseg_need.pdf

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 13, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15406, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 5:59:50 AM

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About the Author
  • ZoŽ Burkholder
    Harvard University
    E-mail Author
    ZOE BURKHOLDER is an educational historian and a fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University in the colloquium ďRace-Making and Law-Making in the Long Civil Rights Movement.Ē
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