The Atlantic published a piece from Nick Hanauer titled “Better Public Schools Won’t Fix America” this summer. The article was widely shared among educators. In it, Hanauer talks about his work to fund charter schools and other concepts that public school educators know don’t work. He comes to the conclusion that he was wrong. Throwing money into schools won’t fix education because the problem is actually poverty.
Hanauer posits that rather than poor economy being the results of poor education, it’s actually the opposite. The economy and income of families influence education. He’s absolutely right. Every teacher will tell you without a doubt that socio-economic status is the number one indicator of potential success of a child. Are there people who succeed despite economic disadvantages? Absolutely. The problem is that they are the outliers, statistically. While education is meant to be the great equalizer, poverty persists despite it because we are not working to correct the systemic causes of poverty.
The Atlantic had another article, one that might seem to be unrelated to education. The title of that article is “Escaping Poverty Requires Almost 20 Years with Nearly Nothing Going Wrong.” In the 2017 article, the author explains that education is a pathway to breaking the bonds of poverty, but it requires setting up a plan beginning in early childhood. This means that the parents of the child need access and knowledge of how to navigate early education, which usually isn’t free, and then spend nearly two decades without layoffs, a broken down vehicle, death, disease, and any of the other obstacles that life will throw at them.
If we want to fix education and make it truly equitable, it’s time that we understand the fix will not happen inside the walls of a school building. Dedicating funding to public education is important and we should still strive to provide the best, most equitable education to all students. We also need more support to make sure families aren’t living below the poverty line, despite having multiple incomes. We need to fix our healthcare system so that a single illness or accident does not doom a family to decades entrenched in poverty. We need the wealthiest of our citizens and corporations to provide their fair share of taxes to support the goals we have as a state and a nation.
Ensuring access to quality education is still absolutely important. We have a moral imperative as a state and a nation to strive to improve and innovate as educators, as well as invest in education for the good of our citizens. The pursuit of equitable education for everyone is not sufficient in itself to help those most in need. Children need to be safe, fed, and to have a home. Children need to have access to healthcare. Children need to not be punished for the perceived sins of their parents. No parent chooses poverty for their children. It is a monstrous cycle that affects both rural and urban families.
We have to stop looking at education through the lens of competition. The systematic ranking of schools only exacerbates the problems created by poverty. Rankings become a self-fulfilling prophecy as schools with students who are most in need are labelled as underperforming. In reality, there are no “good” or “bad” schools. There are just schools with students who have different needs. Education is a cornerstone of our democracy. Without accessible education, it’s impossible for us to grow and keep pace with the rest of the world. We can only do that if we work together.