Education, once the 'great equalizer,' more polarizing than ever

Massachusetts, home to America’s best schools and best-educated workforce, has seen income inequality soar. Why? The poor are losing an academic arms race with the rich.

BOSTON - When Puritan settlers established America’s first public school here in 1635, they planted the seed of a national ideal: that education should serve as the country’s “great equalizer.”

Americans came to believe over time that education could ensure that all children of any class had a shot at success. And if any state should be able to make that belief a reality, it was Massachusetts.

The Bay State is home to America’s oldest school, Boston Latin, and its oldest college, Harvard. It was the first state to appoint an education secretary, Horace Mann, who penned the “equalizer” motto in 1848. Today, Massachusetts has the country’s greatest concentration of elite private colleges, and its students place first in nationwide Department of Education rankings.

Yet over the past 20 years, America’s best-educated state also has experienced the country’s second-biggest increase in income inequality, according to a Reuters analysis of U.S. Census data. As the gap between rich and poor widens in the world’s richest nation, America’s best-educated state is among those leading the way.

Between 1989 and 2011, the average income of the state’s top fifth of households jumped 17 percent. The middle fifth’s income dropped 2 percent, and the bottom fifth’s fell 9 percent. Massachusetts now has one of the widest chasms between rich and poor in America: It is the seventh-most unequal of the 50 states, according to a Reuters ranking of income inequality. Two decades ago, it placed 23rd.

If the great equalizer’s ability to equalize America is dwindling, it’s not because education is growing less important in the modern economy. Paradoxically, it’s precisely because schooling is now even more important.

One force behind rising inequality, in both America and other advanced economies, is well known. The decline of manufacturing and the replacement of clerks and secretaries with software mean there are fewer high-paying jobs for low-skilled workers.

The good jobs that do exist increasingly require higher education: Since the recession started in the U.S. in 2007, the number of jobs needing a college degree has risen by 2.2 million, according to a recent Georgetown University study. The number of jobs for mere high-school graduates fell by 5.8 million.

Falling behind the rich

Just to stay even, poorer Americans need to obtain better credentials. But that points to another rich-poor divide in the United States. Educators call it the scholastic “achievement gap.” It has been around forever, but it’s getting wider. Lower-class children are getting better educations than before. But richer kids are outpacing their gains, which in turn is stoking the widening income gap.

“Now, we’re in a situation where we need to educate everyone at the level of the elite in the past,” said Paul Reville, Massachusetts secretary of education. “We don’t have a system to do that.”

It’s an academic arms race, and it can be seen in the sharply contrasting fortunes of Weston, a booming Boston suburb, and the blue-collar community of Gardner, where a 20-foot-tall chair sits on Elm Street as a monument to the town’s past as a furniture-manufacturing hub.

Educated but mediocre

Seventy miles northwest of Boston, Gardner once touted itself as the “chair-making capital of the world.” The factories employed thousands of workers who supported large families on single incomes. The first workplace time-recorder was invented here, too; as a result of its adoption, “punching the clock” became part of the vernacular.

Today, the factories have gone south or closed. Between 1989 and 2009, the town’s per capita income slipped 19 percent to $18,000.

David Dorval, 47, was laid off in 2009 after working at an area hospital registering patients for 16 years. Dorval, who has an associate degree, struggled to find work, and he and his wife divorced. Today he takes home $1,000 a month at Wal-Mart in Gardner and pays half of his earnings to his ex-wife in child support. He goes to his 79-year-old mother’s house for lunch each day.

“I don’t feel like I am able to do what my parents were able to do,” he said. “My parents were able to support eight kids.”

Priced out

His son, Curtis Dorval, works at Wal-Mart as well. When he was a senior at Gardner High School, Curtis was class president. He was accepted by Northeastern University, a private school in Boston.

But Northeastern cost $50,000 a year, which Curtis, then 17, felt he couldn’t afford. Instead, he enrolled last year at the state-run University of Massachusetts Amherst, studying mechanical engineering. With the help of a scholarship for graduating in the top quarter of his class, Curtis paid $10,200 a year.

He got some help from his father, who had saved up $10,000 in stocks and bonds from his days in the hospital job. This summer, that money ran out and Curtis left UMass to enlist in the Air Force. He will serve as an airman - and hopes to use military benefits to pay for part-time university classes.

“The main reason was I needed a way to pay for college,” he said.

That is the flip side of New England’s excellent universities: They are the most expensive in the country, according to a study by the College Board. A four-year education at a public or private university costs nearly one-fourth more than the national average.

Class clusters

The Boston suburbs where Weston is located are home to the most-educated workforce in the nation’s best-educated state, according to the Boston Federal Reserve. As earnings fell in Gardner they soared in Weston. In 1990, Weston residents made 3.5 times more than Gardnerites. By 2009, it was 12 to 1.

Weston's house prices and real estate taxes put it out of reach for most Massachusetts residents, which points up a conundrum.

As those who can afford to do so head for the clusters, inequality grows. Across the state, communities are becoming more homogenous by income group, said Ben Forman, research director at think tank MassInc.

This fall, the town opened a new $13 million science wing for Weston High School that includes nine state-of-the art labs and a multimedia conference center.

Gardner High has no parent-teacher organization. In Weston, parents raised $300,000 last year for additional after-school activities in the public schools. Top scientists living in Weston help with school science fairs. Parental involvement is so intense that three parents sit on the interview panel for every prospective new teacher. Stay-at-home Weston mothers attend meetings of student-body leaders and help students organize events. They’re known as “Grade Moms.”

“Very fortunate”
                            
Tanner Skenderian, president of this year’s Weston High graduating class, joked in a speech about her town’s hyper-competitive students. “Welcome to Weston, where third graders take AP Physics, middle-school students sleep for 42 minutes a night, and the most competitive race run by the 2012 boys state champion track team was the race to get the cookies in the cafeteria,” she said.

But Tanner thrived there. She also found school to be a source of support after her father died while she was in middle school. This fall, she headed to Harvard, after spending the summer interning at the governor’s office. Given the job market, she said she may apply to business or law school after graduating.

Weston, in short, gave her an education that raises her odds of joining her mother - who owns a marketing and event-planning company - at the top of America’s economic ladder.

“We’re very fortunate that we’re rather affluent,” she said. “We have more opportunities, more technology, more classes and more teachers.”

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