Education has always been one of the five core pillars of the American Dream, along with a decent job that can support a family, home ownership, affordable health care and a secure retirement. Amidst today’s polarizing politics, we can lose sight of how they all fit together.
Financially stable families support learning outside the classroom. Good schools raise home values. Children can’t learn if they’re battling easily treatable ailments like asthma and families can’t have peace of mind if a health crisis can cause bankruptcy. And when retirees are secure, they help pay forward as child guardians, school volunteers and taxpayers.
It was reassuring to see a group of charter school leaders call out President Trump for putting the American Dream at risk by shredding safety net programs even as he promotes school choice. They understand, as well as anyone, that success in the classroom is directly tied to support outside the classroom.
The American Dream Is Falling Apart
The fact is the American Dream is fragile and elusive. More than a third of Americans do not own homes and more than nine million American families lost their homes over the last decade. Less than a third recovered enough to become homeowners again.
The unemployment rate is low, but wages have been flat for decades and many millions of Americans have dropped out of the workforce. The median income today is below 1990’s levels.
Most Americans have some have some kind of health coverage but affordable and accessible is a continuing question. Despite Congress’ recent failure to repeal Obamacare, many Republicans and conservatives still oppose publicly guaranteed health care and may take a run at it again in the future.
While Social Security keeps millions of aging Americans out of poverty, some worry the program will go broke in the coming decades. Meanwhile, public pensions are at risk, private pensions are mostly gone and the national savings rate is way below the all-time high. Fold in trillions in student and family debt and a secure retirement is at risk for millions of people.
Education Is Our Best Hope
In this larger context, education remains society’s best hope. Income and job security are directly tied to educational attainment. College graduates are most likely to be employed and they earn more than high school graduates, who earn more than high school dropouts.
Since the publication of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, reforming schools and systems have been center stage with a focus on standards, accountability and choice. Today, most states have high standards, but the field—states, schools, teachers—struggles to implement them in all of our classrooms.
Accountability has been official federal policy since 2002, though again, implementation has been spotty. We test kids to see where they are, but we’re not very good at helping low-performing schools get better.
We have millions of wonderful, dedicated and inspiring teachers, but we still have a very low bar for entering the field and numerous bureaucratic barriers and disincentives to getting the best teachers in front of our neediest students.
School choice has steadily expanded since the early 1990’s, and today, about 10 million students—1 in 6 school-age kids—attend private schools, public charters or they are home-schooled. While the best urban charter schools get great results, voucher programs are mixed at best. Nevertheless, parents support school choice in most forms and it’s likely to expand.
We’re Still Coming Up Short
Ultimately, what matters are student outcomes and broadly speaking, we’re still coming up short. About 1 in 5 young people don’t finish high school and many who do are not ready for college. Only about a third of young people earn a four-year college degree.
The gap in educational attainment between the rich and the poor is especially disheartening. About 7 in 10 young people from the top fifth of the income ladder earn a college degree but only 1 in 10 kids from the bottom fifth complete college.
So, what are the prospects for the American Dream? We know that good schools, on their own, can’t make it happen. We know that policies affecting home ownership, health care and retirement must be part of the package. We know that weakening the safety net makes it harder for low-income kids to make it into the middle class.
And we know that an economy that increasingly consolidates wealth in the hands of the few, while the many are stuck in low-wage jobs, drives people to quit the workforce, creates enormous strain on families and reduces income mobility.
Lawmakers, from the president on down, should think long and hard about pushing school choice at the expense of the related policies that made the American Dream possible for millions of immigrants and working families. Taken together, these policies are exactly what has made America great.