Inequality begins with poverty, and is perpetuated by underinvestment in education, health and social insurance. One in four American children are born into a poverty that’s deeper and harder to escape than poverty in other western countries. They arrive to public school at age five or six as damaged goods – one can hardly expect any public school system to reverse the harm done, no matter the budget. The US spends a lot on education – but like healthcare, education spending is tilted toward the heroic, not the fundamental: America is the land of elite $50k/year universities – and of failing elementaries and high schools.
Top universities like Harvard operate like modeling agencies: they only want you if you’re pretty. By comparison, the Marines Corps believes that it can take anyone and turn him/her into a Marine. Americans so thoroughly accept the distinct roles of public and elite schools, that they hardly give it a thought. The best American universities – public and private both – run like modeling agencies, admitting only the best of the best, and rejecting the rest. But at the same time Americans expect their public elementaries and high schools to function like the Marine Corps, and turn out disciplined, literate and numerate young people, no matter their circumstances when they enter.
We already know that poor children are different from other children in real, observable ways. Being in poverty as a child has long-lasting negative health and income effects, and the differences even show up in brain scans. Poor kids arrive to kindergarten with all-but insurmountable deficits. If public schools are to be effective, they have to take kids at a younger age. By beginning public school at age three or four – adding pre-K, and even pre-pre-K – and guaranteeing at least 2 quality meals per day, 5 days per week over what should be a 200 day school year – the public will have the opportunity to invest in all of our children at a critical, formative age, so that when they get to kindergarten, they arrive ready to learn.
Head Start, America’s most famous pre-K program, has had fantastic results. When Head Start kids become young adults, they are more likely to finish high school, begin college and go to work – and less likely to become teen parents. They’re also healthier. This should be the model for a nationwide public pre-K system – this is how America can escape its cycle of poverty and inequality. By giving every child the means to reach their full potential, America can live up to its meritocratic ideals. Its self-image notwithstanding, America today is the least meritocratic country in the West. An American child’s destiny lies not in his talents, but in the circumstances of his birth. This isnt surprising, given the vast disparity in health and education resources available to different American children, depending on who they were born to, not on their innate talents.
While investing in public pre-K now, the US should follow up with free public community colleges at the other end. It is an embarrassment that America’s only federal universities are military schools. The federal government might lead by example and create a federal college system that’s free to anyone who passes an entrance exam. The exam can itself be a tool for maintaining high school standards. Alternatively/additionally the federal government could provide aid and offsets to reduce the cost of locally-based tertiary education to zero.
For decades, each successive American generation had far more education than generations past. But that trend ended abruptly around 1970, after which American education-levels flat-lined, and inequality exploded. Jump-starting growth in American education – both at the front and back end – is the key to future prosperity, to break America out of its funk.