It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of the father.
~ Thomas Jefferson
The problem of education inequality is complicated. In the American public discourse it is pegged to income and social inequality as, certainly, State-side there is sufficient cultural precedent to correlate quality of education with careers and therefore income and social standing. But the truth is that for every Harvard-educated lawyer who becomes a Supreme Court Justice or a Senator, there is one who practices law in a small, provincial town, albeit with greater local prestige than might otherwise be had. We ought to look, therefore, rather to the beginning or the cursus honorum, rather than the end, in order to examine the causes of educational inequality.
The need for education is deeply embedded in the American psyche. In the case of the above quote from Thomas Jefferson, he calculated that literacy tests as a prerequisite to vote would serve as an adequate incentive for education. Our history abounds with stories of immigrants who, starting from nothing, raised Harvard graduates who became national leaders – the implication being that Harvard is a necessary step. From the nation’s inception, education has been the first rung in participating in public and social life; it is part of the American dream.
To turn to the present, there is absolutely no doubt that the most famous, and therefore presumably best connected, universities in America are the private ones. This situation leads, very often, to the perception of these institutions as cyclical, i.e. parents go there, enter profitable professions, then have the necessary money to send their children there, and the children will repeat the pattern. Although not entirely accurate, this perception fuels the sense of the interrelationship between education and inequality.
In fairness to the humble majority, institutions have perpetuated this misconception by listing sticker prices that are simply not what most students pay. For example, ten of the elite American universities, including Harvard and Stanford where costs might easily total more than $50,000 per annum, offer free tuition, room, and board to any student whose parents make less than $65,000 annually; for Princeton, the threshold is lowered to $54,000. For anyone whose parents earn up to $120,000, the universities offer free tuition, though the parents must pay for room and board. This graded pricing scale places an elite private education within financial reach for the very poorest in society. It also contrasts with the public universities, commonly assumed to be the less expensive option, where tuition cost is determined by regional residency status and a family could end up paying many thousands of dollars, even with financial assistance, in tuition alone. J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, recounted his shock upon discovering that it was less expensive for him to attend Yale University, than to go to a state institution; as a working-class man, the numbers flew in the face of all the preconceptions picked up from parents, teachers, and mentors.
So if money isn’t the real issue, what is? There is a little hurdle called “getting in,” and with it the issue shifts. There is no denying that American compulsory education has done an abysmal job of seeing its charges into the top American universities; always the public schools have lost in the race for places to the privately-schooled, the independently-schooled, and, more recently, the homeschooled. What do all of these winning educational models have in common? The parent, on behalf of the student, chooses and then invests, which results in a stronger, better primary and secondary educations.
Tellingly, when confronted with the concept of school choice, investment, and parental involvement, public school advocates tend to not respond to the real issue, which is success rates, and instead shift the topic yet again. The current education secretary, Betsy DeVos, spent her career advocating for school choice in her home state of Michigan, which now, thanks to her intervention, has a strong school choice scheme.
Her accomplishments, though, did not meet with the approval of the public school cartel, which, unable to defend itself on the basis of results, raised the culturally irrefutable strawman of racism. As failing public schools, particularly those in the inner-cities, closed due to lack of students following the implementation of school choice, Bridge Magazine, a publication focusing on social and cultural affairs in Michigan, portrayed as unconscious racists all parents who chose to remove their children from failing schools and send them to more successful, non-district schools – though the magazine also admitted that the racial makeup at both failing and achieving schools remained diverse. DeVos by extension became associated with racial inequality for advocating school choice.
The logical problem is that there were and are no legal barriers to parents of all races moving their children to better schools under the Michigan school choice scheme. Some simply chose not to do so. In this decision, they enacted the Jeffersonian principle meant to be integral to the American educational system: there is no power on earth that has the moral authority to dictate to a parent the child’s education, even if the parent chooses an inferior one. Any issues that arise later in life as a result of the parent’s decision must be resolved between the parent and the child as they are a private matter.
The logical and moral flaws of the racist strawman did not prevent the Washington Post from claiming that the DeVos-sponsored network of independent and charter schools, all of which Bridge Magazine admitted performed better than the public schools, did not represent true school choice, and that the only arbiter of such a concept was the government, which would use diversity in all its convolutions as a metric, rather than academic results. Certainly in practice, centralized public education has achieved equality – equality of mediocrity as entire swathes of the country, places without school choice, are simply not represented at the elite American institutions.
Sociologists and authors, including J.D. Vance, claim that this lack of representation stems mostly from lack of how-to and where-to knowledge. Yet, this is not a problem families with school choice seem to suffer from, regardless of race or income level. So what is the magic ingredient? It appears that people given freedom of choice acquire all necessary knowledge in pursuit of their goals. In light of this, any divide in American education and subsequent opportunities is not an issue of inequality, financial or social: It is an issue of freedom.