The other day I noticed a series of tweets from photographer Chris Arnade, who specializes in portraits of the parts of America that aren’t doing well. Arnade stressed that the big source of inequality in America is cultural, rather than economic. The values that are extolled by what he calls the “front row kids” who run things (Joel Kotkin calls them the “gentry liberals) are those associated with fancy education, and it’s hard to get ahead without knowing them.Hang on, wherever there are rows, there are front rows and back rows, including in Winnetka or Naperville or Chappaqua or Fox Point. There's something else at work.
You’re not going to acquire that polish in the public schools if you’re poor. Public schools are sold as promoting equality, but in practice they’re more likely to reinforce inequality. People with money move to “good” neighborhoods, and they do it “for the schools.” People without money generally live in “bad” neighborhoods, where the schools aren’t very good and probably won’t teach their kids what they need to know to get ahead.But the people without much money who get the value of bourgeois convention do what they can to give their kids the chance to interact with others similarly inclined.
Even without vouchers, many public school systems are in trouble because parents see that they are inferior, and scrimp, save, and maneuver to get their kids into better places. Since the kids whose parents care that much about their education tend to be the better students, their departure makes the public schools noticeably worse, leading to further departures. As I noted in my book, The New School, in a number of cities this has led to school closings and teacher layoffs, as failing public schools can’t retain enough students to stay in business. As black Atlanta educator Nikita Bush says, “people are starting to realize that public education in America was designed for the masses of poor, and its intent has been to trap poor people into being workers and servants. If you don’t want that for your children, then you look for something else.”I suspect that the government schools aren't even doing that sort of workforce preparation well, which is why my formulation is "rendered unemployable by government schools and the minimum wage."