Public School Reform Won’t Solve Income Inequality

struggling schoolgirlAt a time when inequalities in wealth are greater than they have been at any time since the late 1920s, leaders of both parties are looking to changes in public education as the major vehicle for achieving greater opportunity and equity in our economic system.

Unfortunately, there is no historical evidence that schools have ever played that role. Take a close look at the chart here from Paul Krugman’s column. The most dramatic redistribution of wealth in American History took place in the years 1937 to 1947, when the percentage of income accruing to the top ten percent of earners plummeted to half its previous total and remained there for over 30 years. Not surprisingly, those were also the years when Black per capita income grew fastest relative to white per capita income (from 44 % in 1940 t0 57% in 1950).What was responsible for this redistribution of income? Was it increased investment in education or reform in the nations public schools?

income inequalityNo, as it turns out, the major factors were increased taxation of high incomes, a substantial growth in the percentage of workers covered by union contracts (from less than 5 million in 1937 to over 15 million in 1945), a reduction in racial discrimination in basic industry ( due to the Fair Employment Practices Commission), and rapid rural to urban migration as a result of wartime economic recovery.
These policies led to a dramatically transformed and increasingly multiracial industrial working class that was highly organized and politically influential at both the local and national level and capable of defending its interest relative to large corporations and the wealthy far greater than its counterparts 20 years earlierNow let’s segue back to today. The idea that school reform strategies emphasizing testing, accountability, privatization, and limiting teacher union power will somehow result in greater economic and racial equality has become an article of faith in the Democratic as well as Republican Parties and has been embraced by the Obama Administration.

mark naison

But there is absolutely no evidence that it is working, Every social indicator of educational achievement, employment and wealth distribution suggests that our nation is MORE unequal now that it was when No Child Left Behind was passed (2001) and reflects no improvements since the introduction of Race to the Top ( 2009). So if these reforms aren’t working now, and never worked in the past, why do many people believe they are effective?mark naisonSome of this reflects the power of foundations funded by the nation’s wealthiest people (Walton, Gates, Broad, etc.) in promoting school reform ideology, but it also reflects the discomfort of much of the American population with collectivist solutions to social problems even when they work.

The truth is, we can do a lot more to promote racial and economic equality through programs of progressive taxation, promotion of unionization in low wage enterprises, and efforts to uproot discrimination in the labor market and the criminal justice system than by trying to improve our public schools through competition and privatization. But those measures require sacrifices by the very wealthy that School Reform manages to avoid so it will take fierce grassroots pressure to bring them to fruition.

Mark Naison
With A Brooklyn Accent


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    It’s no big surprise that ‘public school reform’  doesn’t and can’t deliver ‘greater economic and racial equality’.  What does surprise me is Mark’s claim here that hope for such an equality benefit was a major impetus to Democrats’ support of ‘reform’ .   Meanwhile, my imperfect memory recalls that  ‘reform’ was sold mainly – or even only – as a path to a more ‘globally competitive’ US workforce. 

  2. Joseph Maizlish says

    While school reform doesn’t reduce income and wealth inequality, income and wealth inequality have a lot to do with educational and achievement disparities.  The inequality does its destructive work in many ways:  Low-income parents unable to give the time and encouragement children need, the wealthy and politically connected abandoning public schools (because their children are elsewhere learning the rightness of inequality) — others can add to the list. 

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