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Tipping Points

Sitting behind me on the bus to Midway Airport earlier this month were two high school seniors heading home after three days at the University of Chicago.  They had been admitted and were now deciding whether to enroll. It didn’t look good for the University of Chicago.  The young woman was leaning toward New York University where she has been accepted in the “NYU in Abu Dhabi” program with a full scholarship for tuition, room, and board.  An all expenses paid trip in March to visit the Emirates no doubt helped her make her decision.  There she will join a freshman class populated primarily by English speaking students from some of the prestigious private international high schools around the world.  The young man was holding out for Harvard where he is on the waiting list.  His enthusiasm for Cambridge was nurtured by a Harvard summer program for gifted students he attended last year.

As I overheard the conversation behind me during our fifty minute ride I learned a lot about these two young people.  She was from an affluent suburb in the New York City area where she attends an extremely competitive public high school, probably not unlike the one I attended in my youth.  Her best friend, she reported, was juggling admissions to MIT, Cal Tech, and Stanford.   Big incomes and high parental involvement and expectation propelled her and many of her classmates toward the top schools in the country.  He, on the other hand, attends a struggling public high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Of the nearly 1,000 in his 9th grade class, less than two-thirds will probably graduate.  The rest were either held back or dropped out.  But, like a fortunate survivor in the midst of this sea of failure, he had benefited from the life boat of a rigorous advance placement program he described as a kind of school within a school.  “You see the other students,” he told his seatmate, “but you don’t really go to class with them.”

These were delightful, hardworking, bright, and thoughtful young people.  In addition to their academic accomplishments he tutors struggling students; she is president of the school’s gay/straight alliance.  I hope they thrive and expect that they will.  But as I looked around the crowded city bus, I couldn’t help but ponder the profoundly uneven playing field on which our nation’s youth compete.  The demographics on the bus reflect the neighborhoods between Hyde Park and Midway Airport.  There are a few lower middle class communities of well tended bungalows.  But they are scattered between the far more prevalent working poor neighborhoods and desperately blighted communities, devastated by foreclosures which have left street after street home to abandoned houses and apartments.  African American, Hispanic, and poor make up the principle demographic on the 55 Garfield Local.

Some young people from very poor neighborhoods do find their way to the elite colleges and universities.  They do so because of hard work and innate intelligence, courageous sacrifices made by their parents, and gifted, dedicated teachers committed to working amid the challenges of our urban school systems.  Some do.  But very few of the teens I usually see on the 55 Local appear to be headed in that direction.  Even if they are, the finances are daunting.  When I went to Gettysburg College in the late 1960’s the cost for one year, all inclusive, was well under $8,000.  When our son graduated from Gettysburg College in 2004, tuition, room, board and fees for one year totaled over $30,000.  Six years later the College now reports the total cost will exceed $50,000 per year.  The acceleration of rising costs is staggering.  Scholarships and loans can only cover so much.  If a good second tier school like Gettysburg costs this much, what is the price of an Ivy League education?   (And if you don’t think that matters, take a look at the membership of the Supreme Court.  Seven of the nine attended Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Stanford, or the University of Chicago as undergraduates; eight out of nine attended either Harvard or Yale Law School.) There are, of course, less expensive options, but in state after state tuition costs for public universities are rising dramatically in the face of draconian budget cuts while community colleges struggle to cope with a rapid rise in applicants.

Those of us who have done well after beginning life on the high or middle part of the playing field can be tempted to think our achievement is merely a product of our own diligence.  Hard work and intelligence certainly was part of it.  But let’s not kid ourselves.  The field was tipped considerably in our favor.  There will always be those who make the best of a bad situation, just as there are some who will make the worst of a good situation.  But that shouldn’t blind us to how unlevel the playing field really is for our children.

According to a recent poll, well over half of those who self-identify as members of the Tea Party movement believe that the government is doing too much for poor people in this country and not enough for the middle class.  Is that why Sarah Palin abandoned her job on a modest tax payer dole as governor of Alaska in order to go on the speaking tour where she commands $100,000 per engagement along with a suite and either first class seats or a private jet?  At least tax payers no longer have to pay for her rants about government and guns.

Still, it’s hard to swallow the rhetoric about the supposed largesse being lavished on the poor.   The fact is that for the past decade the government has been handing out huge financial benefits, but they have primarily been going to the very wealthy in tax cuts that have helped to bankrupt the rest of us, including our public schools.  Contrary to what the crazy fringe of the aging white male population in this country has been yelling at Tea Party rallies these days, the playing field has been tipping further and further against the poorest of the poor and their schools.

Restoring excellence and equity to our public schools will not be easy.  But it would be nice, at the very least, if the hardness of heart so prevalent in our public rhetoric these days, whether aimed at the poor or increasingly at their teachers, would be softened a bit by the recognition that intelligence and hard work are not the only things that send some of our nation’s youth to a full ride in Abu Dhabi or Cambridge while others are always facing a field tipping higher and higher against them.  The longer we fail to see and deal with it, the further our nation will slide toward a very real and ominous tipping point beyond which there may be no return.

Many of our nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities were founded by the forebears of our mainline denominations who eagerly invested in education.  Their goal was not to form an elite ruling class dominating commerce and government, but to educate citizens for service in church and society.  The ties to those elite schools are mostly gone, but the mission of educating all of our citizens remains.  Blaming our public schools today is all the rage.  As church people, we must do better.   If we don’t cry out against the tipped playing field in our nation’s neighborhoods and schools, who will?

John H. Thomas

For more information about issues related to public education, go to the United Church of Christ’s website:  www.ucc.org/justice/public-education/

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