Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bernanke:Educational Differences,Two Societies

Greg Jobin-Leeds is Chair of the Board of the Schott Foundation for Public Education and is Founding Partner of the Partnership for Democracy and Education
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is certainly correct when he states that educational differences contribute to the U.S. having the biggest income disparity gap of all industrialized nations.  While he overlooks the fundamental and critical issue of economic inequality, he is correct about the relationship between educational disparities and economic opportunity.  Education does have the potential to be an equalizing economic force. 
To be clear, there are other than economic reasons to be concerned about the education disparities that disadvantage low-income children and children of color -- as Americans and as humans we consider access to a sound and equitable education as part of the bedrock of our democratic society.  It is one of the values that we hold dear – to provide our children, all children, with an opportunity to go to a school where they can blossom into healthy self-sustaining young adults and members of our society. 
And it is important to view education as one of the key pillars of our economy.  Increased education opportunities like access to high quality preschool and to teachers who have been supported with professional development lead to higher student educational attainment.  This leads to higher employment and jobs with higher income which means increased tax revenues which, in turn, means more money for more opportunities in schools.   
Recently, I visited with the teachers and students at Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx.  These caring and talented young teachers and the principal were pleading for coaching and teacher training programs that were being dropped due to funding cuts.  The art teachers worked very hard but had few materials, and while youth obesity rates are growing students had no access to a gym.
My own school growing up in nearby Great Neck, like many wealthy suburban schools, had a gorgeous gym and access to the middle school down the street which had a pool. 
This contrast exemplifies the two societies currently in America.  One set of schools for upper middle-class and wealthy children that provides the opportunity to learn that the teachers, administrators, and Bernanke call for.  And another set of schools for the majority that doesn’t provide an opportunity to learn.
How can we, as a society, ask our energetic healthy kids to go to schools without supplies or gyms?  How can we ask our young teachers to teach their best without adequate coaching, space, or materials?  The increasing reality in much of our country is that teachers are losing their professional development opportunities and art and athletics programs are being cut as state budgets are slashed.  And it's going to get much worse over the long term as state revenues fall because of a shrinking tax (employment) base and, if the current tax cut proposal passes Congress, decreased tax contributions from the wealthiest 2%.

Why do state revenues fall when the need for education is so high and when the chairman of the Federal Bank says it is so important?  One reason is that taxes are increasingly used to benefit the wealthy as tax rates for the wealthiest fall and lobbyists steer government budgets to welfare programs for the rich. 

The vast majority of Americans support increased taxes -- especially for the wealthiest 2% -- when revenues are used for programs such as public education, health and safety, and essential services like the fire department.  

Yet the country’s current economic design (more and more “the free market”)  makes it so that we are not supporting our schools and communities with the basics students need to have an opportunity to learn.  Due to educational research we know that dollars invested in high-quality preschool leads to higher incomes later in life. We also know that dollars invested in teacher recruitment, retention, training (so they can develop the art and science of their craft) result in higher student achievement which would help break down our two-tiered society and lead to fuller employment.

Yet, ironically, on the same day that Bernanke is saying our two-tiered economy is very much based on differences in our education system his boss President Obama joined with the greediest big corporate owners, investors, and politicians to extend tax cuts for themselves and the minority of Americans making more than $250,000 per year.  These tax cuts will require us as a society to cut many school programs of the future as well as many other essential public services such as health programs for children, the elderly, and the disabled.

Many millionaires (who call themselves Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Sustainability) disagree with tax cuts for millionaires, as do many of the working and middle class, and propose instead that the tax cuts should be just for those making $250,000 and less.

During the recent financial crises Obama and Bernanke were able to get billions of dollars for the big banks and Wall Street investment firms.  Now, with all 50 states and the national education system in a deepening crisis, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asks for relatively meager band-aid sums that most parents and educators know is insufficient.  Instead of calling for funding for internationally and nationally proven techniques like universal preschool and teacher development, the President and his Secretary of Education call for ‘free-market’ based charters and merit pay, which recent research has proven have little grounding in long-term success, yet appeal to the big hedge fund campaign donors, investment bankers, and to parents desperate to try anything new.  But while they create little positive change, they also cost very little.

Our democratic society and our economy cannot afford cuts to our children’s education.  We cannot afford the unequal society that jeopardizes both our children’s and our nation’s future. We must as a nation forge systemic reforms that provide the opportunities that will lead to educational success for all students.


  1. When I was living in Nicaragua during the eighties, I enjoyed the friendship of a Norwegian diplomat. He told me that Norway, at the beginning of last century was like Nicaragua - a very poor country. Today, following the UN’s Nov.2010 report, Norway is at the top of human development in the world, a “healthy, wealthy and wise” country. Why? Education.

    Education is not a tangible value, it is not like a machine that you can see, but it is the key for any development. If the US doesn’t invest in education, we will see in the near future an increase in misery, poverty, and violence.

    I was born to a rural family in El Salvador. We were eleven children, who experienced poverty. My mother pushed us to study, and we are now eight middle class professionals. Education has been the springboard for a life that we enjoy.

  2. You stated the case very well. I have also been awestruck at the tax-cut- for- everyone advocates who feel no need to pay more to fight two wars. Both in education and other common efforts for the nation, there seems to be little notion of shared sacrifice. In the case of education, there is both the moral imperative and a definite economic one that shows that, in an information economy, education is the best investment.



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