Obscured by the rancor of the school reform debate is this fact: Socio-economic status is the most relevant determinant of student success in school.
It is not a coincidence that the so-called decline of the American public school system has coincided with the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, the wealth disparity between upper-income and middle-income families is at a record high. Upper-income families are nearly seven times wealthier than middle-income ones, compared to 3.4 times richer in 1983. Upper-income family wealth is nearly 70 times that of the country’s lower-income families, also the widest wealth gap between these families in 30 years.
As the income disparity has increased, so has the educational achievement gap. According to Sean F. Reardon, professor of education and sociology at Stanford University, the gap for children from high- and low-income families is at an all-time high—roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier. With 22 percent of children in the U.S. living in poverty, this country’s 27th-place PISA ranking—the worldwide study that measures K-12 academic performance—simply cannot be compared to a country like Finland, which ranks 12th and, at 5.3 percent, has the second-lowest child poverty rate in the world.
So, why are wealthy school reform funders so squarely focused on identifying teachers and their unions as the cause of public education’s decline and advancing charter schools as the best solution?
Charter schools will never be the answer to improving education for all. It is simply not scaleable. And yet titans of industry such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton family, and billionaires such as John Paulson who earlier this year gave $8.5 million to New York’s Success Academy charter school system, are pouring their millions into support for charter schools—millions that will not, incidentally, be invested in improving the schools that the vast majority of U.S. students attend: traditional public schools.
Can it be a coincidence that those who have benefited most from the last 50 years of steadily increasing income inequality—the top 10 percent--support an education solution that hinges on denigrating public school teachers, dismantling unions and denying that income inequality is the underlying condition at the root of the problem?
The most generous explanation for this phenomenon says that the wealthiest among us are motivated to support charter schools purely out of ideology. They are operating under deeply held beliefs that a school system run by the government smothers innovation and that teachers unions inhibit a free market system that, if allowed to operate, would result in better teachers and child outcomes. In addition, these philanthropists believe that public education has become so hidebound that meaningful change within the system is no longer possible, and that fresh ideas and programs not beholden to a system that resists change will provide programs and ideas that are more effective.
Another explanation that has been posited is that good, old-fashioned greed is at the root. After all, the wealthy did not achieve their wealth through an indifference to achieving a return on their investments—and our public school system is a $621 billion per year endeavor. For example, a recent investigation by the Arizona Republic found that the state’s charter schools purchased a variety of goods and services from the companies of its own board members or administrators. In fact, the paper found at least 17 such contracts or arrangements totaling more than $70 million over five years.
In addition, there are specific tax loopholes that make it especially attractive to donate to charter schools. Banks and equity and hedge funds that invest in charter schools in underserved areas can take advantage of a tax credit. They are permitted to combine this tax credit with other tax breaks while they also collect interest on any money they lend out. According to analysts, the credit allows them to double the money they invested in seven years.
Another explanation suggests a darker motivation. The wealthy’s focus on charter schools is a strategy to weaken unions, one of the few reliable Democratic voting blocs that remain. It is also a convenient way to deflect from the fact that they have benefited most from income inequality and that their business practices—such as moving manufacturing jobs overseas and reducing their tax burden by taking advantage of offshore tax havens—have been among the causes of income inequality and the accompanying erosion of the middle class.
So, if you are a philanthropist from the tech or finance sectors and your goal is truly to fix education in this country, you would do well to apply your generosity, innovative spirit and funds toward addressing the problem of income inequality. Your wealth and position as prominent business leaders put you in a particularly influential position to help close the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Rebuilding the middle class—not expanding charter schools—is the most effective path to increasing access to quality education and to giving more students the opportunity to achieve their dreams.
Gary M. Sasso, Ph.D., is the dean of the College of Education at Lehigh University.