Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Income Inequality: Exploring Links to PK-12 Education Funding

Vast and increasing income inequalities between the rich and poor, apparent now in many developed economies and prominent in the U.S., are receiving a great deal of attention as of late: Identified by The World Economic Forum as the world’s greatest risk and taken personally by Mr. Obama, income inequality is no longer dismissed or described solely in hushed tones. Many appear to accept the premise that income inequality itself inhibits economic growth and recovery (e.g., see here). Add to this substantial public outcry: the Occupy movement, for instance, is and was a direct protest against social/economic inequality and its perceived negative impacts upon citizens and societies. Here in the U.S., even the long-cherished notion of America as the Land of Opportunity appears to be eroding.

Against this backdrop, a variety of policy remedies (some education-related, some not) have been proposed. In this post, I consider a potentially obvious, although infrequently discussed, potential root cause that could thus use attention and remediation. I argue:  If we wish to reduce income inequality and (related) promote intergenerational social mobility, we must discuss and address the often inequitable distribution of resources (or “opportunities”) within the education system itself.

Why education (generally speaking)? A particularly intolerable state of affairs is one in which social inequalities are large and predictable, and opportunities for intergenerational mobility are limited. Education is centrally positioned to either promote or stifle social mobility (Alexander, 2008). In a knowledge-based economy, the provision of education is the systematic way for governments to enhance citizens’ knowledge, ideally in an individually and collectively beneficial manner. Economic growth in developed economies is tied much more so to brains than brawn. The mere fact that attendance in schooling is compulsory and “free” says something about its perceived fundamentality.

What’s the problem? The problem is that, in many parts of the United States, the benefits of education are distributed disproportionately to individuals who are already advantaged in other ways. This inequity stems largely from a system of local control over education, which might be (or have been) virtuous in certain respects, but that also gives rise to great geographic inequalities. In short, systems of financing public education that are tightly related to local taxable wealth confer greater school funding capacity upon the relatively well-to-do. This is especially problematic when, as often occurs in American public schools, the students who are most in need of additional supports are least likely to receive them. It follows logically that such systems will exacerbate more than combat inequality.

Recently, this issue has been helpfully framed in terms of opportunity gaps; such terminology could help to shift and improve any discussion of persistent academic achievement gaps. Eduardo Porter wrote a terrific New York Times article which includes more in-depth exploration of these topics. 

Alright, so…what to do?  Concerned citizens and politicians must confront this problem, difficult and intractable as it may seem. At minimum, as an initial step, it must be openly discussed. It is also helpful to compare and contrast the many different ways that states have approached public school funding; some states have achieved or closely approximated equity, and others most certainly have not. Lastly, we should consider the very real possibility that many of the more popular education reforms currently touted are largely a distraction from this basic issue, as stated by David Sciarra in Mr. Porter’s article.


Alexander, K. (2008).  Preface.  In K. Alexander (Ed.), Education and economic growth: Investment and distribution of financial resources (pp. 1-2).  Nashville, TN:  Linton Atlantic Books, Ltd.

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