Can education solve everything?

The best educational reform might be putting more money in parents’ pockets – not through a government program but through higher wages.

Thomas Wells/Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal/AP
Students walk across campus as Tupelo High School begins a new school year in Tupelo, Mississippi, on Aug. 17, 2020.

Are you someone who believes that education is the great equalizer? I was until I sat down to write this column. But now I’m being forced to confront my perceptions about America’s challenges a little differently.

This week’s cover story by Stephanie Hanes is about education. And as with virtually everything else, the pandemic has acted as a spotlight, illuminating problems that have long existed. Two of the most powerful revelations: Schools are essential child care and our economies can’t fully recover without them – and they are engines of inequity. While wealthy families can overcome public education’s challenges with tutors or computers, others must depend on their districts, which vary wildly.

If we could fix these inequities, could we fix one of America’s deepest underlying challenges? Study after study has shown that economic mobility – the term used to define people’s ability to move up the economic ladder – is a shadow of what it was 50 years ago. Where you are born, and to whom, determines your economic opportunity far more than it did two generations ago. Put simply, the American dream is delivering for fewer people. So many ills of the nation, from political polarization to racial tension, can be connected to the stresses created by this stagnation of opportunity.

So how do we fix it? My answer had been education. And there is a logic to that. As Western economies shift into a new gear – away from manufacturing and toward knowledge-based industries – education is essential to spread these opportunities to all.

But in an article in the Atlantic, “Better Schools Won’t Fix America,” entrepreneur Nick Hanauer asks an interesting question: If public education is struggling, then why are public school students in wealthy areas doing just fine? That leads to one rather obvious conclusion: Higher local tax revenues give those schools sustainable funding. But Mr. Hanauer goes further. That higher income is, in many ways, more important than the school.

“The scientific literature on this subject is robust, and the consensus overwhelming. The lower your parents’ income, the lower your likely level of educational attainment. Period,” Mr. Hanauer writes. “Multiple studies have found that only about 20 percent of student outcomes can be attributed to schooling, whereas about 60 percent are explained by family circumstances – most significantly, income.”

In other words, the best educational reform might be putting more money in parents’ pockets – not through some government program but through higher wages and expanded opportunity. As overall wage growth has stalled, with money concentrating in fewer hands, public schools have felt the effects, not only in inadequate local tax revenues, but also in the need to serve less economically mobile families. Challenges become entrenched. Neighborhoods lose hope as economic advancement seems more remote.

These problems are shared by white communities and communities of color, by conservative rural areas and liberal urban areas. Yet they manifest themselves in division and finger-pointing. For a long time, I thought that education was the primary tool for improving society and repairing the breach. But perhaps we first need to repair the breach – finding better footing for a fresh sense of fairness and equity – to elevate education.

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