Social injustice

Our public education system harms low-income and minority students

By Patrick R. Gibbons
  • Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Defenders of the status quo in public education have long claimed the moral high ground with the assertion that public schools promote social justice. That is, public schools — whatever their problems — provide essential assistance for minority and low-income children.

Today, however, empirical evidence shows that minorities and low-income kids are being harmed by our very expensive and extremely ineffective public school monopolies. Thus, the high ground has been captured by education reformers.

Here in the Silver State, African-American and Hispanic children are two grade levels behind white and Asian students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth-grade reading exam. The situation is identical when comparing the disparity between low-income children and higher-income children. Worse still, the average of all Nevada kids is behind the national average, which in turn is below the average for developed nations.

Graduation rates show even larger disparities. A 2001 report by the Manhattan Institute  revealed that just 49 percent of African-American and 40 percent of Hispanic students graduated high school in Nevada. That compares to 65 percent of white students.

Clearly, public schools currently don't serve any real concept of social justice — however defined.

To remedy the situation, Nevada needs reforms that allow schools to compete and parents to select among them. Empowerment schools, charter schools and virtual schools are decentralized, autonomous entrepreneurial schools that encourage innovation and competition. Importantly, these schools are only funded when parents select the schools, forcing schools to compete and prove they can actually teach children. Instead of focusing on bureaucratic compliance, politics and adult jobs, these schools focus on students and results.

Researcher Carolyn Hoxby of Stanford University found that charter schools in New York improved student achievement in reading and mathematics, especially among low-income children. Importantly, Hoxby's research shows that the charter schools closed the achievement gap significantly. Additionally, Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, found that traditional public schools improved when faced with competition from charter schools.

Public education should also include public assistance for students to attend private schools through vouchers or tax credits. Nine out of 10 random-assignment studies — the gold standard of scientific research — show a statistically significant improvement in student achievement for students receiving vouchers. Vouchers are also less expensive than traditional public-school funding.

Nevada could adopt universal choice programs open to all students, programs limited to special-needs children, such as Florida's McKay Scholarships, or programs for low-income children, like Florida's Step Up For Students, which helps more than 20,000 low-income students attend any public or private school of their parents' choice.

Moreover, evidence suggests that vouchers not only improve student achievement, but that vouchers actually decrease racial segregation. They also impact other inequities that result from an unresponsive, uncompetitive, bureaucratic public education monopoly — such as some public schools simply serving wealthy families. Because traditional school selection is based on zip codes (meaning children tend to be assigned to schools based on how expensive their homes are) some 1.7 million children nationwide attend schools that serve virtually no poor children.

Policies like open enrollment, empowerment schools, merit pay, reforming teacher tenure and restricting school districts from using seniority to determine job terminations, transfers and promotions, can all go a long way in boosting student achievement — especially for minority and low-income children.

Thus, many who have long looked at issues through the lenses of social justice and civil rights are joining the battle against the status quo, which has traditionally been fought by those on the political right.

Illinois State Senator James Meeks (D-Chicago) recently pushed a voucher bill for low-income students. Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) called for statewide voucher programs.

Democrats for Education Reform supports school choice, charter schools, getting rid of bad teachers through meaningful teacher evaluations and reforming or ending tenure and seniority.

In March, more than 5,000 parents and kids descended on the Florida Capitol to show their support for the Step Up for Students program. As a result, nearly half of all Democrats in the state legislature voted to expand the program so that it could serve up to 70,000 low-income kids.

The status quo is losing ground because it allows students to languish in bad schools and to be taught by bad teachers. Those in Nevada who truly care about social justice owe it to our children to embrace meaningful reforms.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit

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