Education, the economy and the election

Sunday, May 14th, 2017 at 1:11 pm by

We are reviving our blog after a hiatus of over a year. This post first appeared in the January 2017 edition of the Council’s monthly newsletter. We will be returning to themes that it covers in future posts.

In my travels around the state and other encounters last fall, I was impressed by stories of pain superintendents shared – not stories of pain within their schools, although there were those, but pain in the families and communities they serve.

At one regional stop, a superintendent told a state legislator, “Our kids’ teeth are worse than they used to be,” and, “Some of our kids come to kindergarten never having seen a dentist.”

Others told of grandparents raising children, because their actual parents were afflicted with substance abuse or working multiple jobs to make ends meet. When asked by a legislator how parent engagement might be encouraged, a few said of the parents in their communities, “They’re doing the best they can.”

Some explained how school buildings are the only sites for youth and adult communities services in their regions.

In December meetings of our State Legislative Committee, superintendents shared counts of opioid deaths in their communities with executive and legislative staff and explained their efforts to provide health and mental health services in their schools.

This theme has also been prominent in reading I’ve done in recent months, trying to understand last year’s election.

In his book, Our Kids:  The American Dream in Crisis, Harvard professor Robert Putnam presents a series of what he calls “scissor graphs” – charts illuminating the diverging prospects of American children by socioeconomic class.

Putnam writes, “Poor kids, through no fault of their own, are less prepared by their families, their schools, and their communities to develop their God-given talents as fully as rich kids. For economic productivity and growth, our country needs as much talent as we can find, and we certainly can’t afford to waste it.”

Several of Putnam’s charts examine the varying circumstances of children based on their parents’ educational attainment. For example:

  • 65 percent of children whose parents’ education ended with a high school diploma or before live in a single-parent home, compared to about 10 percent of children with a parent who earned at least a bachelor’s degree. In 1970, those figures were 26 percent and 7 percent, respectively.
  • 22 percent of 12 to 18 year-old children of parents with no more than a high school diploma were obese in 2010, compared to only 10 percent among children with college educated parents; and the prevalence of obesity has begun to decline in the latter group while continuing to climb in the former.
  • Financial worries have grown for all families over the past 30 years, but much more steeply for those with less well-educated parents: 45 percent of parents with a high school education or less scored high on a financial stress index; only 21 percent of college-educated parents scored high on the index. Putnam explains that stress felt by parents tends to translate into mental health issues for children.
  • The mean net worth of families with parents with a high school education declined by 17 percent between 1989 and 2013; among college-educated households, it rose by 47 percent over that span. Putnam explains, “parental wealth is especially important for social mobility, because it can provide informal insurance that allows kids to take more risks in search of more reward.”

Other data sources yield similar findings. For example, a widely publicized study of rising mortality found that the number of white Americans with a high school diploma or less dying from poisoning, including drug overdoses, increased by 400 hundred percent between 1999 and 2013. The overall death rate among this group rose by more than 20 percent. Even a skeptic of this research agreed, “…the change compared to other countries and groups [within the United States] is huge.”

These troubled experiences appear to translate into pessimistic views of both life chances and public institutions. A survey sponsored by the Public Research Religion Institute found, “A majority (56%) of white Americans say American society has changed for the worse since the 1950s, while roughly six in ten black (62%) and Hispanic (57%) Americans say American society has changed for the better.”

There is also skepticism about the value of education:  only 45 percent of white working class Americans responding to a Kaiser Family Foundation/CNN survey said that they believe a bachelor’s degree would benefit them, compared to 73 percent of the black working class and 74 percent of working class Hispanics.

Educational attainment was also a powerful predictor of voting preferences in the 2016 presidential election. College graduates supported Hillary Clinton by a 9-point margin (52 to 43 percent), while those without a college degree favored Donald Trump by 52 to 44 percent. A Pew Research Center analysis noted, “This is by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980.”

The connection between life difficulties and educational attainment also materializes in voting patterns. A Pennsylvania State University study found that Mr. Trump most improved on his party’s 2012 vote totals in counties with the highest rates of drug, alcohol, and suicide mortality, so-called “deaths of despair.”

On the other hand, counties won by Hillary Clinton produce 64 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. For perspective, in 2000, Al Gore, the last popular vote winner and Electoral College loser, won counties which produced 54 percent of the nation’s economic output.

All this is not to suggest that college for all is the answer to either economic woes or electoral conflict. It is not. But producing better educational outcomes for more people is surely a large part of an honest answer.

Skepticism about the value of education is not supported by hard economic data. Here are November 2016 unemployment rates by education level:  less than a high school diploma: 7.9 percent; high school diploma but no college: 4.9 percent; some college or associate degree: 3.9 percent; bachelor’s degree or higher: 2.3 percent.

Though campaign rhetoric focused on trade agreements and “off-shoring” of jobs as the forces behind the disappearance of lower-skilled manufacturing jobs, automation has been a much greater factor in recent years.

A Ball State University study found that, between 2000 and 2010, the nation experienced the greatest decline in manufacturing employment in its history. But total manufacturing output has grown. Automation has enabled U.S. manufacturers to produce more goods with fewer workers and accounts for 88 percent of the manufacturing job losses, according to the Ball State study.

Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy and spoke at the Council’s 2012 Winter Institute. In a prescient December 2015 article he wrote,

Donald Trump’s supporters were produced in the first instance by the failure of the larger society to give them the skills they need to compete in the greatly changed global economy. They find themselves now trapped in local economies that can compete only by keeping their wages as low as possible. They see themselves as being abandoned by the very business, government and intellectual elites who, to make it worse, never tire of lecturing them about what they should be doing.

It is time to stop lecturing people trapped in these circumstances. It is time to stop regarding them as too stupid to recognize their own best interests. It is time to ask ourselves what society can do to provide them with the kind of educational opportunities that can help them lift themselves out of the low-skill, low-income whirlpool they find themselves in. This is not a racial issue. The low-skill whirlpool is sucking in people with white skin, brown skin, black skin and every color in between.

We don’t have much time. The angry politics of resentment are the politics of the whirlpool. If that whirlpool gets large enough, resentment will drag us all down.

Education and public schools in particular also have a role to play in addressing the pain in our political life.

Commentators on both the left and right have observed that the discord and dysfunction that characterizes our national politics are seldom matched at local levels. Perhaps because the scale is smaller, the stakes seem lower.

Or perhaps, compromises are more apparent and more attainable when debates are conducted face-to-face, rather than in 140-character spurts through Twitter.

In any event, as we have written, public schools remain institutions which truly are of, by and for the people – accountable to all people and charged with serving all children, whatever their circumstances, wherever they come from, whenever they arrive.

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