The empathy gap in education
Tuesday, June 18, 2019
Let’s begin with a lede borrowed from the June 5 edition of The Los Angeles Times: "Leaders of the Los Angeles school district made a calculated gamble: The January teachers' strike made such a huge, positive impact on the public that sympathetic voters, they thought, would overwhelmingly pass a tax increase to benefit schools."
Here’s the background: Los Angeles public schools, like public schools across the country, are overcrowded and lacking in resources, particularly in the resources needed to educate minority students with special needs.
It’s not widely understood, but only about 14% of the students in L.A.’s K-12 schools are white. Two-thirds, in fact, are Latinx, many of them living in households where Spanish, not English, is the primary spoken language.
In 2019, L.A.’s teachers, fed up with the funding obstacles they faced, went on strike. Wage increases were involved, but the primary thrust of the strike was to increase school funding overall.
One important aim was to do provide the resources needed to reduce the obstacles facing these minority students.
How Measure EE Was Designed to Overcome Property Owner Objections
The passage of Measure EE, which would have provided the needed funds, was carefully crafted to overcome common objections to education-related tax increases. The measure would have assessed property owners on the basis of square footage, which assured a degree of progressiveness — the smaller your house, the less you paid.
Needless to say, there are fewer rich people to vote against such a measure than less wealthy homeowners who might go for it if the assessment didn’t impose an actual hardship. The proposed annual tax bite over 12 years was 16 cents per square foot. L.A.’s houses, even with mansions for the wealthy included, average only 1,600 square feet, a third smaller than the national average. The average annual assessment would have been $256 a year for twelve years — substantially less than the basic cost of trash pickups, which will go on forever.
Another obstacle that education assessments always face is the resistance of older taxpayers. Why should they have to pay to educate someone else’s children? Measure EE intended to get around this problem by exempting from tax anyone 65 or older.
It was also considered that the guaranteed expiration of the tax after 12 years would make passing the measure considerably easier. As the vote approached, all interested parties — Mayor Eric Garcetti, the teacher’s union, the school board and the teachers themselves — were optimistic.
“What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” (and Why)
Although a pre-election survey by the L.A. school board predicted a win, the measure failed badly, the second time in recent years that an L.A. school district funding measure was rejected by L.A.’s voters — and despite the fact that opponents of the measure were outspent.
One reason for the failure has been — underestimated would be a generous way of putting it — almost totally ignored or even deliberately kept out of view, is an uncomfortable truth. Liberals don’t like admitting it and for different reasons conservatives don’t encourage discussing it either, but the fact is that white people (a majority of L.A.’s householders are white) don’t really care that much about black and brown students.
As it turns out, there is a lot of data-based backup for this alarming statement. From the passage in recent years of several big-ticket federal education measures intended to close the achievement gap between white students and black and brown minorities — No Child Left Behind, for instance — one might conclude that the country did care.
Federal officials did what they could to enhance that caring by making racial test scores public. The Brookings Institution research study affirmed that this was “intended to put direct external pressure — including electoral pressure — on local political authorities by arming citizens with key information about inequities in the performance of their local schools.”
But the Brookings study also brings home how out-of-touch with reality Washington is on this subject. The uncomfortable truth is that no white constituency exists that cares about school reform intended to help black and brown students.
The Brookings study of over 1,500 California school boards over more than a decade determined that voters cared how well white students did in their school districts — voting out boards that failed in this regard — but exhibited no particular concern about how minority students fared, showing little regard for Latinx students and none at all for African-American students.
What Can Be Done to Improve Matters?
The Brookings study also showed that half of all Americans don’t even know of this achievement gap for minority students. In a way this is hopeful, because it leaves open the possibility that by increasing awareness among white Americans of this pervasive problem, support for remedial measures will increase.
Less hopeful are some of the studies other conclusions, particularly the researchers’ conclusion that even school board members who are aware of the achievement gap — regardless of its size — generally agree that closing the gap is “among the least urgent items,” they are working to resolve.
In other words, the real gap here is a white empathy gap. Until that gap closes, the education gap will almost certainly persist.
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