Schools and Politics: The Focus on Income Inequality Is Good News for School Reform

Summary: The rising political focus on income inequality brings renewed scrutiny to the role of school reform for low income students, and a cautious opening to political consensus.

Many low income students I encountered as a high school counselor confounded me with their obvious wit and intelligence on the one hand, and on the other their unwillingness or inability to prepare in school to the dimensions of their clear native intellect.

While the reasons are multidimensional, statistically we know from test and other data that a disproportionate percentage of students who struggle in school are from low income families. As a result, a typical high school counselor works disproportionately with low income kids as I did, because high school counselors spend much the better portion of their time with kids with academic and sometimes behavioral profiles that need near term intervention.

While I also had a healthy share of low income students who navigated their way successfully through high school and on to college, some with the guarantee of tuition from Washington State’s College Bound program, the question remains what it is in the cultural milieu in some families where money is hard to come by that seems to inadequately prepare their children for school success. The scenarios are complex.

We know, for example, from neuroscience that chronic parental stresses such as those of putting bread on the table can essentially be transmitted to kids unintentionally and hinder cognitive growth. The good news is that in the proper supportive environment such early deficits can be overcome, so plastic is the brain’s neurochemistry. In more multifaceted terms, so goes the argument for early childhood education. Class origin need not imply destiny.

As the conversation in state capitals and Capitol Hill trends toward income inequality, with even conservatives now tentatively staking out proactive policy thinking, it is well to remember that the national conversation about school reform, in the end, is about reaching low income children, and figuring out ways via schools to bring their minds to full ticking.

From a public policy point of view, full skill competence is critical to an alert and fulfilled citizenry and to a technical and fast moving employment universe. By extension, a broad base of this set of skills is one remedy to the dysfunctional inertia of a growing underclass.

By this logic, focus on income inequality again highlights school reform.

The discussion about income inequality puts on display some of the usual political litmus patterns. There is the move to raise the minimum wage as the quickest means of reducing the gap, generally but not exclusively advocated by some on the left.

Job retraining for adults and restructuring of the tax code are in the mix, the former established by state and federal programming and incentives (and really an enhancement of programs long in place), and the latter as a means to generate the funding that (let us not kid ourselves) will be needed. There seems some openness to these ideas across a broad ideological spectrum.

There are rumblings on the right about giving young people tools with which to bring by their own efforts a closing of the income gap, as preferred over initiatives that are viewed as giving handouts that would tether recipients to government dependency. Since the left has consistently advocated for school funding, and has had to curtail such spending in the face of political realities, we may finally be coming full circle to a politically common focus on schools.

Schools become one important social nexus through which we, right and left, address in a long term way the income inequality that vexes the country. By the way, not a new idea in American history.

It is worth pointing out that the federal effort to improve health care and to bring poor families into the health insurance fold is a spiritual and practical cousin of educational reform.

The Obamacare that those on the right deride is another of those weapons against income inequality, via its intended impact on the health of low income children.  We know by multitudinous studies that an unhealthy kid does more poorly in school than a healthy one, and so falls behind in studies, and becomes a case study in the need for reform of the health care system.

In short, reform in schools and in health care share a common clientele, our low income brethren, whose full enfranchisement both the economy and a healthy social fabric require. Thus goes the argument for making investment in schools and health care now with an eye to the future. Those willing to think long term should embrace it; Wall Street and corporate employers may well see the logic but will balk at the price tag; patriots of various stripes will find a lot to like; and humanity is served.

Potentially fatal battles over revenue stream obviously remain, but it is refreshing that on some policy perspectives around income inequality the partisans have rational common ground open to multiple perspectives.

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