Thursday, February 01, 2007

The educational divide

A poignant moment in the other night's panel discussion among civil rights veterans came when Braxton Foushee talked about what he imagined, while in the thick of those protests more than 40 years ago, that the future would bring. He talked about education. With only a high school diploma himself, he was determined that his own children would go to college. Three out of four did; the fourth went to technical school and did find a career. So, that's a success story. But it is a fragile one.

This week, The State of Things is hosting a series called "Considering College":

More Americans are going to college than ever before. But a closer look at the numbers reveals some troubling realities. Low-income students are even less likely to go to college today than high income students were 30 years ago. In other words, while more low income students go to college now, they have yet to "catch up" to the parents of their high income peers. And while college enrollment has increased significantly among African-Americans and Latinos, minority students are still less likely than white students to go to college, and less likely to complete their degree. Put another way, access to college has expanded significantly in the past generation, but it has expanded much more for white and high-income students than for other groups.

In Tuesday's episode, Graig Meyer, coordinator of the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate program in Chapel Hill-Carrboro city schools, talked about how difficult it can be to get low-income, primarily African American and Latino students to see that going to a four-year college is in their interest, as opposed to a two-year program that will get them to a paycheck faster. Or even to imagine going to college at all, with no family example to look to.

An article at Inside Higher Ed describes research that documents "educational segregation": the way in which educated people tend to flock together, leaving concentrations of the uneducated. This research "suggests that educationally selective migration is fundamentally altering America’s social geography, and that this change has consequences that we are only beginning to understand." If you're, say, an educated person in Chapel Hill, you can experience the benefits of this self-selection by walking down the hall of your office or up to a coffee shop and having a great conversation with a colleague: "When smart people cluster together, innovation occurs, productivity rises, and growth occurs." But the flip side of the this picture is bleak.

For every booming human capital hub, there are dozens of brain drain communities, and for these communities educational segregation can be disastrous. While brain drain is not exclusively a rural phenomenon, the picture is particularly bleak for rural America. In any given year, more than 6 percent of America’s non-metropolitan B.A. holders migrate to a metropolitan area. Economic growth has stalled in these brain drain communities. In the worst cases, communities are left with insufficient medical care and limited educational opportunities, as they find themselves unable to replace retiring small-town doctors and teachers. There’s no reason why college graduates need to be distributed equally across the United States. But deepening educational segregation closes off opportunities for people born into brain drain communities, creating new social and economic inequalities.

Breaking this self-perpetuating cycle is what Judge Howard Manning has been seeking to do in the long-standing Leandro case. When some school districts have far fewer resources than others, and with test scores to reflect it, who wants to teach there? who wants to live there?

Short of equalized state funding, which isn't likely to happen, I don't see a solution to this problem.

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