Utopian rhetoric about digital revolutions transforming public schools that has parents and children learning online at home, in the workplace, libraries, and settings other than public schools has been common in the past. They are back again. Utopian designs for the future of public schools, however, are not restricted to praising new technologies. They also include President Barack Obama’s words on education reform a few months ago in his State of the Union address.
“Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform — reform that raises student achievement; inspires students to excel in math and science; and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to the inner city. In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world- class education.”
I want to parse that last sentence: “The best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.” To promote a “world-class education” the President and his Secretary of Education seek to increase prekindergartens and charter schools, reward teachers whose students have done well on tests, turnaround thousands of failing urban schools, and insure that everyone goes to college. That “world-class” education will have to deal with about 40 million poor Americans in 2008. That is 13.2 percent of population–the highest rate since 1997.
Simply citing the numbers skips over the social and economic consequences of poverty in infant mortality, higher rates of diabetes, alcoholism, obesity, anxiety, depression, and, of course, earlier than normal deaths.
Given these figures and the inexorable collateral damages accompanying poverty, then one would think that:
*The best anti-poverty program would help mothers and fathers move from unemployment into worthwhile jobs with sufficient income to support their families.
*The best anti-poverty program would take those adults whose jobs have been lost through outsourcing to other countries or restructured out of existence and re-train them for other jobs.
*The best anti-poverty program would provide tax credits or direct support of child-care, health insurance for working parents, and ample financial aid packages for parents to send their sons and daughters to college.
In short, I would think that is preferable, even efficient, to help adults directly now rather than indirectly later through schooling their children, thereby waiting another generation to lessen poverty.
Of course, it is not an either-or choice. To those familiar with the past, Americans have had an unvarnished and deep faith in education solving collective and individual problems. Education has always been part of any package of federal and state efforts aimed at reducing poverty, as it was nearly a half-century ago when President Lyndon Baines Johnson launched a “war on poverty.” At that time, he said: “The answer to all of our national problems comes down to a single word: education” (Tinkering toward Utopia, p.2).
In the late 1950s, the percentage of Americans in poverty reached a high of over 20 percent and then fell by 1969 to 12 percent. That was a swift and stunning reduction in poverty. In those years, employment expanded, Medicare arrived, job-training programs multiplied, and, yes, those were also the years when the Johnson Administration established the Job Corps, Head Start, Upward Bound, and many other education and community-related programs.
Today, there are federal and state subsidies for pre-school programs, unemployment relief, tax credits, and college financial aid packages scattered across different agencies but still hardly enough to dent poverty in America.
So for the President to label a program championing more prekindergartens, charter schools, pay for performance, turning around failing high schools, and sending everyone to college as the “best anti-poverty program” around for a “world-class education,” to me, those words sound like inflated rhetoric of earlier generations of reformers who, like the President, shared a deep faith in education as a universal solvent for poverty and other national problems.
Like our President, those earlier generations of reformers targeted schools as a solution to the national problem of poverty and avoided the hard, political work of either fixing those socioeconomic structures that sustain poverty and striking inequalities in wealth or funding comprehensive programs of support for low-income adults—or both. The President’s assertion is, again, a familiar attempt of putting on the school’s shoulders national problems that will defer solutions to the next generation and, in doing so, offer a feel-good band-aid that diverts attention from existing inequities, including the persistence of poverty.
The need to paint a rosy picture–either technological or one seeking social justice–of an educational future just beyond our fingertips in order to solve national problems is both deep and abiding within the American psyche. Policymakers and politicians take that characteristic American need for a Utopia and put it into words time and again. But converting those words into school practice and then the larger society, ah, there’s the rub.