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Getting the Edge

$2.1 million is a lot more money than $16,000. That’s the difference in estimated local property wealth per pupil between the most affluent and the poorest school districts in Illinois as reported in this past weekend’s Chicago Tribune. This translates into vast disparities in school funding capacity when the primary source of revenue for public school revenue is local property taxes. State educational funding helps redress some of this imbalance, but only some, and current formulas even grant the wealthiest districts a portion of state funding. The legislature is currently examining ways to adjust the formula, but even that will do little to alter the fundamental imbalances in what we spend on our young people based solely on where they live. Meanwhile, the elite private Chicago Lab School just announced a $25 million gift from George Lucas and his hedge fund executive wife, Mellody Hobson, part of an $80 capital campaign that includes building the new Gordon Parks Arts Center. But I digress.

While this does a lot to explain the vast disadvantages faced by many of our children today, particularly in our large urban school districts, it doesn’t tell the full story. Mike Rose of UCLA, in his wonderful book Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us, points out that “this dramatic difference in institutional resources is compounded by differences in the material resources parents can provide: from private space to computers and reference tools to tutoring and other scholastic remedies and enrichments.” This was brought home to me while perusing the summer camp and school advertisements in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Let’s just say that we’ve come a long way from the playful YMCA camp experience of my childhood. No more learning how to swim, handle a bow and arrow, or make an elaborate woven lanyard out of colored plastic string! There’s another agenda and just having fun is not it.

Two among the many similar advertisements make the point. The first, for the Baruch Leadership Academy in New York, brands its summer high school program, “Learn, Prepare, Network, and Launch.” Network? The four week “pre-professional programs allow students to explore new realms of academia, engross themselves in college planning and standardized test preparation, and better plan for success in their future endeavors.” High school juniors choose from global finance and economics, pre-med, entrepreneurship, and financial engineering tracks. When I was a junior in high school I spent my summers bagging groceries, a skill that has come in handy over the years but which probably didn’t do much in terms of networking.

The Ross School summer term in the Hamptons and abroad promises youth that they will “gain a competitive edge this summer.” Ross offers tracks in marine science (in New Zealand and French Polynesia), innovation lab: design and invention, Mandarin immersion, and mathematics. With Baruch and other programs like it, all of this has a clear objective. As one graduate of Baruch’s program puts it, “the Academy gave me the tools that I need to apply to Ivy League schools.” With costs ranging from nearly $3,000 for the basic four week “day camp” only program in New York City, to well over $10,000 for six week “sleep over” and travel camp experiences in the Hamptons and beyond, these are obviously Mike Rose’s “enrichment” opportunities on steroids.

Aside from the wisdom of treating some of our children like pampered thoroughbred race horses in the Ivy League sweepstakes, or of infiltrating every activity with the rhetoric of economic competition, all of this demonstrates the structural ways in which our society helps to protect the very affluent class from downward mobility while doing little to nothing to provide meaningful upward mobility for poor and near poor children. Meanwhile, we embed notions of entitlement in the fortunate few while sending others to underfunded public schools and to summers where “enrichment” is a rusting basketball hoop on the neighborhood playground and a part-time minimum wage job at McDonald’s. Beware the “networking” that happens on these streets!

Jesus never said, “The rich you will always have with you,” but he might as well have. The wealthy have always had opportunities unavailable to the vast majority. But that doesn’t mean poor children in our society ought to be relegated to inadequately funded public schools and endlessly assaulted by the latest “reform” program imposed on them by the elite.

We talk a lot about opportunity in this country. Certainly individual effort, initiative, and responsibility loom large in the ability of anyone to claim the opportunities available to them. But as Mike Rose points out, hope is a key determinant in whether opportunity itself is a meaningful concept. “What is the experience of opportunity? Certainly one feels a sense of possibility, of hope. But it is hope made concrete, specific, hope embodied in tools, or practices, or sequences of things to do – pathways to a goal. And all of this takes place with people who interact with you in ways that affirm your hope.”

Right now for far too many of our children there is little that is concrete and specific about their lives to embody their hope, and precious little supporting teachers and parents who can affirm that hope. For these children, the sky’s not the limit, but the impossible dream. Children don’t need to study marine biology in New Zealand or entrepreneurship on Wall Street in the summer to have hope. But they do need good schools, well paid, well trained, well supported career teachers, and supports for their families to be able to provide a safe and stable home life. Absent this, all the talk about equal opportunity for all our children is not only futile, but obscene.

John H. Thomas
February 27, 2014

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