There’s a scene from the 1989 movie "Lean On Me" in which Morgan Freeman, playing a tough New Jersey principal named Joe Clark, tries to rally his students to pass a test that the entire state expects them to fail:
In one hour, you are going to take an exam administered by the State to test your basic skills and the quality of education at East Side High. I want to tell you what the people are saying about you and what they think about your chances. They say you’re inferior! You are just a bunch of n-----s and s---s and poor white trash! Education is wasted on you! You cannot learn! You’re lost! I mean ALL of you. ... But you can turn that around and make liars out of those bastards in exactly one hour when you take that test and pass it and win!
That speech could be delivered at most schools in Chicago. Here’s something we have to admit about the Chicago Public Schools: It’s a lower-class institution that overwhelmingly serves people who have no other educational options. If you’re poor and you get sick, you go to Cook County Hospital. If you’re poor and you’re hungry, you apply for food stamps. If you’re poor and you need to learn to read, you go to the neighborhood elementary school, with the other poor kids, because your parents can’t afford to move to the suburbs or send you to Catholic school. Eighty-five percent of Chicago Public School students come from low-income families, and an equal number are African-American or Latino.
Public education was instituted to close the gap between the gentry and the peasantry by teaching everyone to read, write and sum – which at one time were considered skills beyond the intelligence of most human beings. It’s hard to argue that such is still the intent. The poor and minority Chicago Public Schools spend $11,300 per student, while white and wealthy New Trier High School spends $17,500 a student. Author Jonathan Kozol compared the two districts in his 1992 book, "Savage Inequalities." Twenty years later, he said in a recent interview, urban public schools have become more unequal and more segregated. (Public school integration peaked in 1988.)
Affluent people are often served by good public schools, and they have the financial ability to choose good private schools if they are unsatisfied. Poor people are usually served by schools with severe disadvantages -- under-resourced, dilapidated, endemic management crisis, disaffected teachers and principals. So it is hard to make the case that American public education is a powerful force for decreasing social inequalities.
As long as the middle class and the upper class refuse to apply their social and financial capital to the public schools, they’ll remain institutions that serve the poor, and do little to increase their prospects in life.
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Published at 1:44 PM CST on Jul 29, 2011