Updated: Jun 22, 2020
Images are powerful. The Civil Rights Era of the 1960s would not have occurred without powerful images. Black Lives Matter would not thrive without images. Major changes are underway regarding the use of force in American law enforcement because of powerful video images of black suspects being violently apprehended by white police officers. This is an important moment for the United States, and it is long overdue that this conversation take place. It is important to remember though that without images, and the ability of social media to spread those images, it simply would not have occurred at this time.
These images might compel some to drill down deeper into racism by examining its origin in political domination, as a necessary component of colonialism and Western expansionism. Political Scientists, Historians and others have been examining that thesis for years. But at the same time, I think we need to be careful not to distract ourselves from the present crisis in education that was spawned by Covid 19 and the downward spiral that it will likely lead to in education. And with that focus we can address some of our larger concerns about inequality, racism, and ignorance in our society.
Nothing gets at the core of the cycle of racism in our country than education. We had segregated schools a half century ago. We still do, by the way. You want a job to escape poverty? Well, you’ll need education. And that will cost you money. And not only that, you will need to get a good K-12 education to get into the best schools. You might need a tutor. You’ll need some quality recommendations. Who do you and your parents know? Are you able to pay full tuition? Will you be able to attend full time or will you have to work 30 hours a week? Inequality exists in our society because it is cyclical and it is vicious and it is reproduced in educational institutions.
Education is central to the issue of racism. Without an education, statistics show you are unlikely to move up in society. You will likely make less money. You are more likely to struggle to maintain employment. And you are more likely to encounter police in the first place.
During the 2008-2010 recession, more than 120,000 teaching positions were eliminated. Some states are expecting up to a 30% reduction in revenue, as states rely heavily on sales taxes. But people remained less stirred by the current education crisis. And when nobody is looking, it is really easy for them to cut into education budgets. In Missouri, the governor just announced $209 million in budget cuts. Of that, $131 million will come from education.
Can you think of an image of inequality in education? Perhaps you can conjure a picture of old textbooks in a poor school district. But that is not nearly powerful enough. We have an image in our national consciousness of black school children being chaperoned to white schools in the South, but those images are dated. Racial inequality is a pernicious and evil problem of our time, but we have few images to convey this to the average American.
Strategically, we can use windows of opportunity, such as this time, to shift the conversation to discuss education as part of the problem of structural inequality, but without the full focus of imagery on these issues, it likely will take a backseat for policy makers.
And it is crucial that education become of focal point. Covid 19 has strained state and local budgets the fountain of which most educational funding comes from. What is about to happen is inconceivable from a standpoint of pure logic. Here a movement has emerged that pushed for a redress of structural racism, and the inequality that follows it, and we are on the precipice of making a budget decision that will slash funding for public schools and colleges which will unquestionably make that inequality worse. We may have fewer and better trained police, but we will also have fewer and worse trained teachers. States will cut funding to public universities, and these schools will need to attract more affluent students to subsidize those more deserving students who are not wealthy. And although many applaud the decision to end the use of the SAT at the UCAL system, it is clear that this was partly done in the interest of colleges who want to increase the pool of applicants who can afford to pay higher tuition and fees and not in the interests of students.
The vicious cycle may be amplified even as confederate statues are tossed into local waterways. Budgets aren’t as sexy an statue of a slave trader being tossed into a river but they are the most important arena where racism ought to be fought. Such imagery might even distract us from the fact that “the wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. school districts spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest 10 percent, and spending ratios of 3 to 1 are common within states. With a budget crisis on the horizon, I can only imagine this situation getting much worse.
Inequality in education is major problem but it is not intractable. I would argue there is far more room for progress in this policy than in law enforcement. We just do not seem focused enough to make changes. There is more room for policy change because, unlike law enforcement, the stakeholders in education mostly agree with the assertion that there is inequality. They are very willing players and have a great deal to gain. They have quite a bit to lose in ignoring the issue.
Education offers a tangible public benefit. Educated citizens are good citizens but also good for the economy. It is a mechanism of intervention that changes lives and outcomes. If conservatives want self-sufficient citizens they will need to support education. This a palatable issue that both sides of the aisle should be able to work out.
We are in a recession. Tax revenues are down. The situation is made more dire by the fact that education is primarily a local issue and those tax revenues have dried up. And while it’s unlikely that most police departments are about to be defunded (ok, a few might) it is very likely that many schools are about to be defunded. Teachers will not be hired. Books will be reused. Extracurriculars slashed. Extra help will be furloughed. And nobody is going to talk about it. Unless something changes between now and next year’s budget discussion, that is what I predict will happen.
Why? Because the racial and socio-economic problem in American education is created by the funding structure of schools. It is not a complicated problem. Schools are funded by primarily by local governments. The districts themselves reflect inequality and it is very politically sensitive to change those boundaries. I would offer that education funding be moved to state budgets, which themselves should be funded by massive block grants from the department of education. Sales taxes are regressive but also not reliable. We need the federal government to commit to education.
More attention should be paid to attracting high achieving college students to the k-12 teaching profession. That begins with higher salaries. But also the federal government should play a larger role in ensuring that low income schools are able to attract these teachers perhaps by providing additional financial incentives for well-trained professionals to accept jobs at these locations. In addition to this, more black teachers need to be recruited into the profession.
Class sizes should be limited allowing for more attention to student needs. This is greater problem in poorer schools but with state and federal oversight this can be more stringently regulated.
Better textbooks, better technology and tech training and more challenging curriculum are also required. Subsidizing programs that wealthier families can afford is necessary to close the gap.
Every state should fully fund a public university system with limited fees and no tuition. Community colleges should be cheap and widely available and their credits should automatically transfer to all public colleges. It’s not a crazy idea. It has been done before.
One of the reasons I created Politicalsciencegames.com was because I want to give back. I want citizens to learn, explore, and have fun doing it. Games are a great way to do that and there are many other ways. Those of us with the ability to create, should create, and we should offer our creations for free (or at a low cost to recover our own expenses). We have enjoyed the privilege of receiving a great education. Let’s offer some of it back.
But we do need political change. And we need to put education at the forefront of addressing racism and inequality once again. The last time racial inequality was on the education agenda back in the 1960’s it led to massive, measurable gains in black and minority achievement. But the job was never finished. There is still a considerable gap that has not closed between white and black students. This should not be surprising because we know that even though we have made progress, we still have a long way to go. De facto segregation has continued, and black schools remain underfunded and under-resourced. We need big victories to go along with symbolic ones. Let’s get it done before it is too late.