The Real Issue: Socioeconomic Class in Today’s Classrooms

Race, gender, and orientation are important, but as Betsy DeVos' confirmation as education secretary shows, socioeconomic status will be what ultimately defines us.

In 2006, during the first financial aid workshop I conducted at a private school in Washington, D.C., only two families showed up in an auditorium designed to hold 100 people. The following year, three families attended. By 2011, with parents still feeling shaken by the effects of the Great Recession, the workshop was at full capacity, serving a standing-room-only crowd. Traditionally, race, gender, and — more recently — sexual orientation have taken center stage in efforts to address social inequality. But as the nation’s middle class continues to shrink, school leaders will need to give greater attention to socioeconomic class as the most pressing concern in American education.

In my current position as a diversity advocate at Marin Country Day School, I still press for gender balance and racial/ethnic representation, but each school day, I am increasingly focusing on socioeconomic status as well. Perhaps surprisingly, most applicants either come from upper-class families who can afford to pay the full tuition, or from families who receive tuition reductions of 85 percent or more. Each year, fewer and fewer of our applicants come from middle-class families.

A January 2014 Pew Research Center/USA Today survey found that the number of Americans who self-identified as “middle-class” dropped from 53 percent in 2008 to 44 percent that year. According to the report, the proportion of Americans perceiving themselves as middle-class had never been lower.

In “Notes on the Upper Muddle,” a Jan. 7 opinion piece in The New York Times, writer Lucinda Rosenfeld describes the United States as possessing “a class system as closed and inflexible” as England’s. Forced to consider her own class status and whether to choose public or private education for her children, Rosenfeld observes that “the most privileged segment of society does not use the public schools at all … [and that] the children of the well-off are guaranteed to interact almost exclusively with other members of the lucky in birth.” Those who are born into the upper and lower classes are likely to remain in those socioeconomic castes their entire lives. But those born into the middle-class are increasingly likely to slip into the working and lower classes.

The reality is that the cost of a high-quality education is out of reach for many Americans, no matter how hard they work — particularly considering the failing state of many of the country’s public schools. Even for the lucky few who are able to pay $30,000 a year in tuition for their child to attend an independent school like the one where I teach, the costs do not end there. Because today’s students must be “well-rounded” in order to be competitive for admission to many colleges and universities — and for employment in today’s job market — their parents must also sign them up for expensive extracurricular activities, not to mention travel abroad and summer internships. And what happens when that wealthy student wants to turn her B+ into an A-? Her family then must pay a phalanx of tutors and specialists to help her overcome that hurdle. The ballooning costs can leave even the most financially comfortable parents feeling overwhelmed.

Teachers — despite some pay increases — also pay a price when they teach in schools located in wealthy neighborhoods where exorbitant housing prices prohibit them from living nearby.

“We’ve had an ongoing affordable housing crisis in the Bay Area, and now we’re at a critical level. …” said Amie Fishman, executive director of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News last September. “Teachers and other core professionals are not going to be able to live in the community.”

As these teachers seek ways to reach the students they wish to serve, they make a trade-off by spending less time with their own families and by getting fewer hours of sleep to offset the time needed for their long commutes.

But students pay the highest costs when we create barriers to interactions between members of different socioeconomic classes.

In January 1969, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party pioneered a free breakfast program in Oakland that eventually led to the federal government’s establishment of free breakfast programs nationwide — programs that now serve millions of public school students. In hindsight, it seems obvious that students need to eat in order to learn, but sometimes it takes seemingly radical thinking to take even such basic steps. In 2017, many American schools are overcrowded, lack up-to-date textbooks, technology, and recreational facilities. It seems obvious that without these things, students will not be able to flourish in tomorrow’s economy.

Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, a woman who has never once attended or taught at a public school, is our new secretary of education. DeVos’ strident support of vouchers and charter schools raises questions about where she stands in support of public education. As DeVos settles into her role as leader of the nation’s schools, she will find an education system that is in many ways still stuck in the 20th century. However, as her responses to questions during her Senate confirmation hearings demonstrate, DeVos has little understanding of basic school operations, even as she seems to want to push the middle class out of the equation.

The old adage says that one should never discuss politics, religion, sex, or money in polite conversation. But we can no longer afford not to discuss socioeconomic class when shaping the nation’s classrooms. Flat wages, lack of access to technology across all demographics, and rising student debt will only hinder future generations.

Race, gender, and orientation matter, but socioeconomic status will be the identity that ultimately defines us all. The federal government must take every action possible to rebuild and strengthen our middle class, lest we become a two-class system. It must also address the growing teacher shortage, dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, and foster student learning with critical thinking. Only when our nation’s leaders take seriously the challenges facing the poor and middle class in our nation will American students truly prosper.

Vincent W. Rowe Jr. is the director of equity, affinity, and diversity at Marin Country Day School. He has worked in education for more than two decades.

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