The US Senate wonders about tax policy for the American Dream: why are schools failing to promote social mobility?
The American education system is of relatively more advantage to the relatively advantaged. As a result it does less than it could to promote opportunity.
In response to my July 10th testimony to the Senate Committee on Finance hearing on “Helping Young People Achieve the American Dream” I received some homework, a series of questions asking me for a good deal more detail. You can review all of the questions on my November 11th post, but a couple of questions posed by the Committee Chairman, Senator Max Baucus of Montana, speak to probably the most important driver of social mobility, and raise particularly important issues for public policies.
Senator Baucus asks the following:
Education is one of the most important factors in providing every American with the opportunity to succeed. Our education system is one of the reasons that we have one of the most productive labor forces in the world, but not everyone seems to be benefiting. Why is our education system failing to achieve the same level of mobility that we see in other countries? How could the education system here in America do a better job of promoting mobility and opportunity?
At almost $15,000 per student, America spends more on the schooling of its children than almost all other rich countries. However, what matters for mobility is not just the amount of spending, but how the funds are allocated.
The one sentence answer to Senator Baucus’s first question is: the education system does not promote mobility to the extent that it could because it is of relatively more benefit to the relatively well-to-do.
The higher levels of spending in the United States are driven by much higher spending on tertiary education. For every dollar spent on primary education three dollars are spent on tertiary education, the highest of all other rich countries.
Further, tertiary spending is dominated by private sources of financing, which makes up over 60% of all spending on this level of education. America, in other words, is choosing to make higher education more of a priority, and in a way that is of relatively more benefit to the relatively well-to-do.
The demand for high quality college education among the well-off expresses itself in a demand for high quality primary and secondary schooling that offers a gateway to a good college education.
And while America also spends more on primary education per pupil than many other countries, significant inequalities in parental resources express themselves in the structure of the system, leading to variations in financing, quality, and access in a way that does little to level the playing field.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development summarizes its research on this issue in this way:
Currently the United States is one of only three OECD countries that on average spend less on students from disadvantaged backgrounds than on other students. … Moreover, the most able teachers rarely work in disadvantaged schools in the United States, the opposite of what occurs in countries with high-performing education systems. (page 30)
On this basis the response to Senator Baucus’s second question—“How could the education system here in America do a better job of promoting mobility and opportunity?”—might proceed in two steps: reforms to the financing of education, and reforms to the structure of the system.
Reforms to make education of relatively more benefit to the relatively disadvantaged should begin by replacing or in some way supplementing financing by local property taxes. This narrow base for school financing leads income inequalities between families to be echoed in inequalities in the nature and quality of schooling.
Whether it is politically feasible to undertake such reforms at the State level is not a question I can address, but perhaps there are federal funding formulae that could be put into place so that more funds are directed to less advantaged neighbourhoods, and paid for through a progressive mechanism.
These financial reforms should go hand-in-hand with making teaching a valued, more highly paid profession that over time attracts the best and brightest. It should also involve the use of school testing and evaluations not as a punitive instrument, but rather as a managerial tool for obtaining feedback, improving quality, and redirecting resources at the school level.
These financial and structural reforms should be the preconditions to reform on the structure of schooling that includes:
- a focus on the early years, involving high quality full-day kindergarten and pre-kindergarten;
- raising school-leaving ages and requiring high-school graduation;
- the continued development of post-secondary technical/community colleges that offer employer-based training as an alternative to college education;
- and for those who pursue a college education a program of income-contingent student loans in which repayments are based on having a job, and the level of income earned.
While the Senator is certainly correct to suggest that the education system is the most important public policy determining social mobility, its role also illustrates the influence of labour market inequalities and both the monetary and non-monetary resources that families have to invest in their children. Public policy needs also to be concerned with supporting families, an issue the Senator raises in other questions.
[ I have to admit that I do not know as much as I should about the design and financing of American education, so I would invite feedback on my response to Senator Baucus’s questions–particularly with regard to the Federal government’s role in financing the system. Here are the sources I am drawing upon:
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Louis Jacobson, and Christine Mokher (2009). Strengthening Community Colleges’ Impact on Economic Mobility. Economic Mobility Project. Pew Charitable Trusts.
OECD (2012). OECD Economic Surveys, United States 2012. OECD publishing.
OECD (2011). OECD Education at a Glance 2011. OECD publishing.
OECD (2011). Lessons from PISA for the United States, Strong Performers Successful Reformers in Education. OECD Publishing. ]