Separate and unequal

One of the most effective things we can do to strengthen our economy and global competitiveness is to ensure that all kids have access to a good public education, as reform efforts work to close academic achievement gaps. The political rhetoric of “spending cuts” has largely ignored the impact cuts in education spending at the federal, state and local levels have on our ability to make progress closing those gaps. Our failure to fully utilize the potential of every American also endangers our economy.

A McKinsey study released earlier this year showed how growing academic disparities doom our economy to failure. McKinsey analyzed data that suggest America’s academic achievement gap “imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession.” The study suggests that closing the gap between black and Latino students and white students between 1983 and 1998 would have raised the GDP between $310 billion and $525 billion by 2008. Had we closed the achievement gap among income groups in the same period such that students from families with income below $25,000 a year had been raised to the performance of students from homes with incomes above $25,000 a year, then GDP in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher, or 3 to 5 percent of GDP.

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The current budget deficit talks raise significant concerns about our ability and willingness to close these gaps among all children. The budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would cut an additional $1.3 billion from federal education spending, which means less money to states and cities at a time when most have already made significant education cuts, letting go of teachers, increasing class sizes and eliminating other resources needed to target interventions for struggling kids. The Ryan budget not only widens the gaps by unfairly focusing on ways to give more to the wealthiest 1 percent; it leaves everyone else, particularly middle- and low-income families and communities of color, fighting each other for the scraps.

A lawsuit filed by the NAACP, United Federation of Teachers and local political leaders in New York City provides a dramatic example of the trickle-down impact cuts in federal funding can have. Budget cuts have hampered the construction of new school buildings, resulting in a practice called “co-locating,” where city-owned school buildings (taxpayer-funded) house more than one school. Co-locating has resulted in overcrowding and increased class sizes. In one example in which a public school and public charter school co-locate, it has created unequal access to facilities including the library, gym and cafeteria. On a daily basis, two children entering the same building spend their days in very different educational realities: one with new materials, laptops, priority access to shared facilities, and the other with peeling paint, outdated materials and lunchtime at 10 a.m. Parents have been pitted against one another as they understandably fight for their kids’ education.

Having worked in education, and at the NYC Board of Education, I personally support multiple approaches — including charter schools — to education reform, so long as we ensure that budget realities don’t result in raising one group of students up while leaving others behind as disparities increase. As a country, we decided a long time ago that separate and unequal is an unacceptable contradiction to our values. So we should consider the message it sends to the child who looks down the hall to an educational oasis she can see but not touch.

Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.