Few scandals have upset the public as much as has the university admission bribery case involving 33 movie stars, hedge fund managers, and other privileged parents who shoe-horned their under-performing or dim offspring into top schools. They were charged with bribing university officials and coaches, and (in some cases) of paying imposters to take SAT and other exams for their kids.
The FBI is investigating hundreds more parent-perpetrators.
Such misconduct by people who have already won life’s sweepstakes represents a sucker punch to those who believe that America is a meritocracy and that anyone can get to the top by dint of hard work or talent or smarts. Of course, the existence of Ivanka and Jared in the White House should have disabused anyone of that belief. Clearly the American Dream—the idea that equality of opportunity is available to anyone—has seen better days.
The United States has become a gigantic country club where membership is controlled by elites who restrict slots to the wealthy, to heirs like Ivanka or Jared or George W. Bush, or to Ivy League graduates with connected parents. Arguably, nepotism has always been around, but it is surprisingly commonplace, according to a 2014 Census Bureau report, “Fathers, Children, and the Intergenerational Transmission of Employers”. Its analysis showed that by age 30, about 22 percent of sons will be working for the same employer at the same time as did their fathers. This survey was not about children working for fathers in family-owned enterprises, but about fathers getting their bosses to hire their kids.
Entry into posh schools doesn’t require bribery if applicants are members of the “lucky sperm club”: More than 36 percent of students enrolled in Harvard University’s class of 2022 are “legacies” or the offspring of graduates, according to the Harvard Crimson. Admission is also available to those, like Jared Kushner, whose father bequeathed $2.5 million to the school.
But the bigger issue is that underlying this patronage-addled society is educational injustice. It’s hardly news that the American model of educational funding has created an unequal playing field, propagating a disparity of educational expenditure per student as vast as the country’s increasing income disparity. But it should be. One Presidential candidate this year is attempting to make sagging teachers’ salaries an issue. That’s certainly a symptom of the problem, but not the root.
Most funding for public schools comes from local property taxes. This has meant that children in affluent neighborhoods get a better education than do those in poorer communities. This model stunts public schooling, and is not present in other developed nations. European and Canadian public schools provide equitable educational opportunities irrespective of geography, property tax revenues, parental income, religion, or race. The result is better educational outcomes.
In 2016, for example, an average of $11,762 per student was spent by American public elementary and secondary schools. But one state spent more than $20,000 per student on average, while a handful of others spent a third as much, according to the Census Bureau. There are also wide gaps in spending within states.
Differences are caused by factors such as the local cost of living, class sizes, teachers’ pay, and property taxes, but the spending gaps—even within states—are so significant that they point to a form of regional stinginess, or discrimination, that stratifies and disenfranchises millions of children. The range is dramatic: The highest per pupil expenditures are New York at $22,366; Connecticut, $18,858; DC, $15,951; New Jersey, $18,402; and Vermont, $17,873. The lowest are Florida at $8,920; Mississippi, $8,702; Utah, $6,953; Arizona, $7,613; and Idaho, $7,157.
In Canada, public education is managed by the ten provinces and entirely funded by tax revenues. Distributions are allocated based strictly on the number of students and on the cost of providing special needs, common specialty and enrichment programs, and additional language or other help for new immigrants or refugees. Teachers are provincially certified and paid the same, irrespective of the neighborhood or community where they teach. Such a fiscal and regulatory equalization mechanism, within provinces and nationally by the federal government, ensures that rich and poor alike have access to a good education from qualified teachers.
A 2013 study by the Center for American Progress suggested Canada’s system would work well in the United States. “The most significant takeaway from the Canadian experience is that a provincial- or state-level funding system can work successfully to create equity and not just in small states such as Hawaii. Ontario has a very large student population—more than two million—and has successfully implemented such a system,” said the report. “Provinces were able to successfully transition from funding systems that looked more like those of U.S. states—where local boards set tax rates and raised some portion of funds locally—to a system funded at the provincial level with greater equality, if not total equity. This conversion debunks the idea that systematic change in school funding is not possible and that we are simply stuck with the status quo.” Canada’s outcomes are superior to America’s despite a higher proportion of immigrant children without language skills in some provinces. “In Ontario, which educates 40% of Canada’s students, nearly 30% of the province’s population are immigrants. According to the 2015 PISA [the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment] Ontario scored fifth in the world in reading. Children of immigrants perform compatibly with their peers with Canadian-born parents in educational achievement.”
Nationally, the story is the same. PISA ranks are determined by measuring 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance in mathematics, science, and reading. Canada ranks 10th—behind Singapore at 1st; Hong Kong at 2nd; Macau at 3rd; Taiwan at 4th; Japan at 5th; China at 6th; South Korea at 7th; Switzerland at 8th; and Estonia at 9th. The United States ranks 40th.
American teachers are also paid less. A 2017 OECD comparison in U.S. dollars showed that the average salary of an American secondary school teacher with 15 years’ experience is $63,006; a Canadian teacher is $65,474; a Dutch teacher is $72,778; a German teacher is $81,260; and a Luxembourg teacher is $109,734.
But that tells only part of the story. Teachers’ salaries in the United States vary greatly from state to state, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. In 2017, the blended national average of elementary and secondary teacher salaries was $58,950, but as high as $79,637 in New York and as low as $42,668 in South Dakota and $42,925 in Mississippi. The Economic Policy Institute noted that professionals with comparable education and skills earn 19 percent more than do the country’s educators. The result of relatively poor pay is declining enrollment in teachers’ colleges, and a high turnover among those employed, both of which are, in turn, creating worrisome teacher shortages in poor areas.
It’s telling that the quality of public high school diplomas is so disparate that American universities require applicants to sit for a standardized SAT exam. One college official suggested that an A average in an impoverished school is equivalent to a C plus in a public school located in a wealthy suburb. This is not the case in Canada. Canadians applying to Canadian universities are not required to take the SAT because secondary school diplomas are equivalent, as are curricula and grading procedures.
But, as one wag recently joked, in the United States the SATs are supposed to be about measuring aptitude. Instead, they have also become a measurement of your parents’ bank account.