Schools of Hard Knocks

The fights over education -- school vouchers, the No Child Left Behind Act, affirmative action, and access to higher education -- resonate deeply with people because they are literally fights over the American dream. Americans used to be able to move up economically with a high-school degree and a blue-collar, unionized job, and their kids could enjoy decent public schools. Now, however, those who have little education are also likely to have little income, forcing them to live in neighborhoods where their children attend inferior schools.

Moreover, with skyrocketing college tuitions and federal financial-aid policies tilted toward education tax breaks for more affluent families, even academically prepared low-income and working-class students are having a hard time pursuing a college degree. For all his talk about "compassionate conservatism," George W. Bush has shortchanged working families and their children. Yet clearly these children need a good education -- now more than ever.

The economic rewards of a good education are enormous. According to 2001 U.S. census data, the mean annual earnings of workers 18 and older increased lockstep with education. Those without a high-school degree earned about $19,000. High-school graduates earned roughly $27,000, while those with a bachelor's degree earned $51,000. For Americans with advanced degrees, mean earnings were $73,000. A 2002 census report estimated that work-life earnings were $1 million for those without a high-school degree, $1.2 million for high-school graduates, $2.1 million for those with a bachelor's, and $4.4 million for people with professional degrees.

While more students are going to college than ever before, the gaps between affluent and low-income students remain as they've been for a generation. Meanwhile, recent research suggests social-mobility rates are lower than previously estimated. A study by American University's Thomas Hertz finds that only 7 percent of those born into the bottom economic fifth make it to the top fifth as adults, while about 40 percent stay in the lowest fifth like their parents.

What has the Bush administration done to make K-12 and higher education an engine for social mobility? As much as one might expect from the people whose social-mobility platform includes items such as a repeal of the estate tax.

For K-12, Bush has pushed two initiatives: No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and school vouchers. NCLB, passed in 2001, was supposed to be a central plank in Bush's compassionate-conservative agenda. The act has been wrongly attacked in recent months as an intrusion on states' rights, but critics are correct to note that Bush hasn't held up his end of the bargain on funding. In his new budget request, the appropriations are a staggering $9.4 billion less than the level authorized. This shortfall comes at a time when local education districts are facing their own fiscal crunches.

But the overlooked flaw at the center of NCLB is that it does little to address the key source of inequality in public schools: the separation of rich and poor. The crucial ingredients for a good education -- high-quality teachers, adequate funding, a safe and disciplined environment, high standards, active parental involvement, motivated peers -- correlate directly with the socioeconomic status of the students. But NCLB, like most public-education reform, is an exercise in trying to make the notion of "separate but equal" work.

Clearly, concentrations of poverty can overwhelm even good education reforms. As a result, some districts have wisely chosen to adopt policies that address economic school segregation. For example, Raleigh, North Carolina, and its suburbs have a policy that no school should have more than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Research shows that all students -- low-income and more affluent -- do better in middle-class schools, and in the Raleigh area, about 90 percent of students read at or above grade level. The federal government could play a role in encouraging districts to pursue such policies, providing support to local officials making tough choices. But NCLB is essentially silent on the issue.

Bush's other initiative is private-school vouchers. Earlier this year, the president signed legislation establishing the first federal private-school voucher program in history -- a plan to provide at least 1,700 low-income students in Washington, D.C., a chance to attend private and religious schools with taxpayer money. Conservatives like to talk about social equity: It's unfair to trap poor African American children in bad schools, they say. But evidence suggests that, ultimately, conservatives are aiming for public support of all private-school students. In Milwaukee, for example, voucher supporters tipped their hand when they proposed eliminating the means test for voucher recipients. In any event, the evidence on the supposed academic benefits of vouchers is thin.

Moreover, the administration's desire to allow poor children to flee failing schools doesn't extend to certain school-choice and housing programs that might indeed increase social mobility. Section 8 housing vouchers, which help low-income and working-class families move to neighborhoods with good public schools, are under attack by the administration. As Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution notes, Bush has proposed making housing vouchers part of a block-grant program, "a screen for what he really wants: cutting the voucher budget in the future." And an Education Department deputy undersecretary, Nina Rees, recently said she opposes giving poor children trapped in failing D.C. schools the chance to attend nearby suburban public schools, preferring to keep urban students in private schools located in low-income communities. While members of the Bush administration like to cite Brown v. Board of Education as an inspiration for NCLB and school vouchers, they are unenthusiastic about the programs that have a chance of fulfilling the promise of Brown.

Bush has been quiet on higher-education policy. In a year when the federal Higher Education Act is due to expire and rising college costs have been front-page news stories, the Bush administration has been slow to send a reauthorization proposal to Congress. Brian Fitzgerald of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, notes that Bush's higher-education policy has been "marked by an absence of major initiatives."

Why? Because Bush's tax cuts leave him little room to be creative. The cornerstone of federal-aid policies for low-income and working-class families, the Pell Grant, has seen funding increases under Bush. But those increases have failed to keep up with tuition costs. Moreover, last year, the administration proposed a new funding formula for Pell Grants that could have pushed 85,000 students out of the program and reduced the grant for hundreds of thousands -- but was blocked by Congress.

As part of Bush's 2001 tax cut, income limits were raised on tax deductions for higher-education expenses to include families earning up to $160,000. Meanwhile, under the president's new proposed budget, spending on the federal Trio and GEAR UP programs, aimed at improving academic preparation for disadvantaged students, see no increase in funding. Conservatives say there isn't enough money to raise spending on such programs, but, in fact, one could double spending on both Pell Grants ($12 billion) and the Trio and GEAR UP programs ($1 billion) for less than the cost of the dividends and capital-gains portion of Bush's tax cut.

The Bush administration's prime intervention into higher-education policy has been its decision to oppose the University of Michigan's affirmative-action programs that were contested in the U.S. Supreme Court. Affirmative action is about racial diversity and is not a particularly efficient engine for social mobility; according to William Bowen and Derek Bok, two defenders of the program who studied enrollment at elite universities, 86 percent of blacks at these institutions are middle class or upper middle class.

According to Newsweek and Los Angeles Times polls in 2003, the public opposed preferences for racial minorities by 2-1. Yet the same Americans favored a social-mobility policy of preferences for economically disadvantaged students, regardless of race, by the same margin. A Bush Education Department report showed some wonkish interest in economic affirmative action. But the administration's legal brief, and the president himself, instead emphasized a program to provide automatic admissions to students in the top percentage of their high schools. It was easily dismissed by the Supreme Court as inapplicable to graduate schools because high-school students don't seek admissions to graduate schools. In any event, percentage plans do little to help promote social mobility because they disproportionately benefit the most economically advantaged students within low-income schools. Worse, these plans look like a cynical attempt to boost minority representation in the freshman class rather than an effort to provide opportunity to those students of color who are most likely to succeed.

Recently, the president of Texas A&M moved to eliminate legacy preferences in order to be consistent with his opposition to racial and ethnic preferences. And North Carolina Senator John Edwards rightly attacked legacy preferences as "a birthright out of the 18th-century British aristocracy." Yet Bush has said nothing about the admissions policies that give preference to children of alumni.

Meanwhile, conservatives have a new line of attack in defending their reluctance to provide grants to working-class and low-income students. The Manhattan Institute has argued that lack of financial aid doesn't deter low income students; it's lack of academic preparation. But studies that control for academic achievement find, as education consultant Larry Gladieux notes, the "dumbest rich kids have as much chance of going to college as the smartest poor kids."

This shouldn't be acceptable. But addressing the issue would require taking on influential parents of dumb rich kids -- something we can hardly expect from the current administration.

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