The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The federal government’s short attention span

When it comes to school and neighborhood inequality, the federal government has a short attention span, discussed here by Elaine Weiss and Patrick Sharkey.  Weiss is the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, a project of the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute that recognizes the impact of social and economic disadvantage on many schools and students, and works to better the conditions that limit many children’s readiness to learn. Sharkey is an associate professor of Sociology at New York University and the author of Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality. He will discuss key findings at an Economic Policy Institute event on Thursday, April 10.

By Elaine Weiss and Patrick Sharkey

Stuck in place. That seems the most accurate description for the circumstances in which many African-American children and their families find themselves today, 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education mandated the desegregation of our nation’s schools, and 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington. These momentous historical events helped bring about a decade of rapid progress toward racial equality in the 1960s. But at the end of that decade, the progress stopped. From the early 1970s to the present, racial gaps in income and wealth have remained unchanged, and African- American families that were in the middle class a generation ago have experienced alarmingly high rates of downward mobility. Looking back at the gathering on the National Mall five decades ago, Algernon Austin and the Economic Policy Institute were exactly right in describing it as an “Unfinished March.”

It is encouraging to see President Obama take on economic inequality, a massive and growing problem that hits minority families particularly hard. It is encouraging to see the U.S. Department of Education reach scathing conclusions in its recent report on extensive racial bias in our education system, from heavy-handed disciplinary suspensions that begin in pre-kindergarten, to lack of access to advanced courses in heavily minority high schools. Such high-profile acknowledgements of the obstacles to school and life success that we place before poor minority children are critical first steps toward removing them.

But when it comes to neighborhood and school inequality, the federal government has always had a short attention span. Small-scale, short-term initiatives to address urban disadvantage have come and gone, but our nation has never made a commitment to durable policies with the capacity to transform communities, schools, and the lives of families within them.

As a result, neighborhood inequality has been passed down to the current generation. About two out of three African Americans who were raised in poor neighborhoods grow up and raise their own children in similarly poor neighborhoods, compared to just two out of five whites. More than half of black children raised in middle-class families experience downward economic mobility, compared to just one third who are able to move upward in the income distribution; the American Dream is far out of reach for most of these kids.

These disturbing statistics indicate that racial inequality is multi-generational. The challenges facing black children today are a continuation of the disadvantages experienced by generations of their family members. And the cumulative experience of life in the nation’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods is most severe. Exposure to poor neighborhoods over two consecutive generations reduces children’s academic achievement by more than half of a standard deviation, the equivalent of missing multiple years of schooling.

Unfortunately, many of our education policies exacerbate these consequences of neighborhood disadvantage. Just in the past year,  U.S. Rep. Mike Honda’s Educational Equity Commission released its report, “For Each and Every Child,” noting disparities from preschool and health care access to school funding that impede disadvantaged students’ success. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that those disparities in opportunity drive gaps from before kindergarten through the college dropout crisis. And the National Education Policy Center documents how, even when education policies are ‘colorblind’ on the surface, they interact with school systems and residential patterns in which race is a central factor in deciding where students go to school, what resources and curricula they have access to, whether they are understood and appreciated by their teachers and classmates, and how they are categorized across academic programs.

Recognizing the limits of school policy is a starting point. Sustaining this attention is more challenging. The policy agenda outlined by the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education reflects what we have called a “durable” urban policy agenda; it advances the types of investments that are needed to create transformative change in families’ lives. A durable approach to education policy is one that reaches both children and their parents, and one that addresses the learning environment not only within the school but outside of it as well. More importantly, it is a commitment that renews the vision of the March on Washington, and sustains that vision over time.