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Can Schools Cure Poverty?

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Jennifer Berkshire posted this interview with economist Harvey Kantor in response to a column in the New York Times by David Leonhardt suggesting that schools were the best way to address poverty.

Leonhardt wrote that education “is the most powerful force for accelerating economic growth, reducing poverty and lifting middle-class living standards.” He then goes on to argue that vouchers don’t work, but charters do. This runs contrary to Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie’s study of charters in Texas, where they found that attendance in charter schools had no effect on future earnings.

What Kantor has to say is crucial in this discussion.

Kantor says what I have come to believe is bedrock truth. Poverty should be addressed by reducing poverty. No matter how high the standards, no matter how many tests, no matter how swell the curriculum is, those are not cures for homelessness, joblessness, and lack of access to decent medical care. This realization explains why I changed my mind about the best way to reform schools. It is not by turning schools over to the free market but by seeing them as part of a web of social supports for families and children.

Here is part of a fascinating discussion:

One of the consequences of making education so central to social policy has been that we’ve ended up taking the pressure off of the state for the kinds of policies that would be more effective at addressing poverty and economic inequality. Instead we’re asking education to do things it can’t possibly do. The result has been increasing support for the kinds of market-oriented policies that make inequality worse.

If we really want to address issues of inequality and economic insecurity, there are a lot of other policies that we have to pursue besides or at least in addition to education policies, and that part of the debate has been totally lost. Raising the minimum wage, or providing a guaranteed income, which the last time we talked seriously about that was in the late 1960’s, increasing workers’ bargaining power, making tax policies more progressive—things like that are going to be much more effective at addressing inequality and economic security than education policies. That argument is often taken to mean, *schools can’t do anything unless we address poverty first.* But that’s not what we were trying to say.

Berkshire: But isn’t part of the attraction of today’s education reform movement, that it holds out the tantalizing possibility that we can correct the effects of poverty without having to do anything about, well, poverty?

Kantor: That’s right. What’s interesting about our our contemporary period is that we’re now saying schools can respond to problems of achievement and we don’t need to address any of these larger structural issues. When you think about these larger questions—what causes economic inequality? What causes economic insecurity? How are resources distributed? Who has access to what?—they’ve been put off to the side. We’re not doing anything to address these questions at all.

Please read the entire discussion. It is very important in understanding the attack on schools and the fruitlessness of corporate reform, which ignores the causes of poor student achievement.

It will help you understand why billionaires and right-wingers love corporate reform. It enables policymakers to forget about the necessity of social policy that affects the conditions in which many families live.

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