De-Provincializing Development

By Amanda Walker Johnson

This entry in our “De-Provincializing Development” series examines SDG #4: inclusive and quality education for all. 

In Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol (1991) interviewed St. Louis reporter Safir Ahmed about the poor environmental and economic conditions in East St. Louis, Illinois. Comparing the city to the Third World, Ahmed told Kozol, “Why Americans permit this is so hard for somebody like me, who grew up in the Third World, to understand. . . . I keep thinking to myself, ‘My God! This is the United States!’” (17). Throughout the book, following Ahmed’s comment, Kozol inferred that “Third World” describes the conditions of inequality in the US educational system. Returning to the project of visiting schools around the country and assessing school conditions fifteen years later, Kozol, in his 2005 text, used the term apartheid to describe the inequalities he witnessed. While not above critique, Kozol’s deployment of terms like “Third World” and “apartheid” challenges the presumed supremacy of the US educational system internationally. Kozol’s assessment unsettles ideas about US progress on issues of equity and democracy and reveals the need for evaluating the US educational system through international standards of human rights, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The targets of the SDG on education focus on the level of equitable access to early childhood development, universal primary and secondary schooling, and vocational and postsecondary education. Goals also include promotion of literacy, “decent” preparation for employment, and the reduction (or eradication) of vulnerability in schooling based on gender, ability, Indigeneity, or other factors (such as race, nationality, religion, and poverty).

Currently, the Trump administration is proposing a series of budget cuts that would directly undercut SDG targets. These cuts include over $350 million from preschool development programs and Head Start; over $1.5 billion from postsecondary financial aid; nearly $4 billion from support for students with disabilities; $66 million from Native Hawaiian and Alaskan education; $190 million from literacy programs; $72 million from funding for international education, foreign language, and overseas education; and a whopping $2 billion from professional development grant programs.

Source: Flickr.

While these proposed budget cuts seem extreme, they represent more than just the current administration’s contrast with UN goals; they also represent a historically rooted reluctance in the US to adopt a human rights approach to education.

As The Atlantic points out, the US has never adopted a federal guarantee to the right to education, which makes the US an anomaly among other nations. Since the 1971 Rodriguez v. San Antonio decision, in which the Supreme Court made clear that there was no federal guarantee to education, advocates for equity in education (particularly finance equity) have had to seek recourse at the state level, where all constitutions guarantee the right to education. However, these cases have revealed that the “right to education” has not always meant a guarantee of equity, but often narrows to a focus on “adequacy”—that is, guaranteeing only the lowest-common education across student subpopulations.


The “right to education” has not always meant a guarantee of equity, but often narrows to a focus on “adequacy”—that is, guaranteeing only the lowest-common education across student subpopulations.


These court cases also indicate that perhaps one of the most powerful and unheralded forms of activism in the US has been a sustained effort to maintain the right to create systems of educational advantage, hierarchy, or what Bourdieu called “distinction.” More than ideology, this effort is embodied structurally in the funding system of public schools, which is based on local property taxes. This means that educational funding reflects (and reproduces) racial and class-based residential segregation, produced even through the seemingly benign imperative to move to areas with “good schools.”

One of the mechanisms through which the UN suggests that SDG goals in education can be achieved is improvements in educational facilities and environments. However, as Kozol pointed out in his 1991 and 2005 texts, facilities in the US are remarkably insufficient and unjust. In a 2014 survey of public schools, the National Center for Education Statistics found that 53 percent of school respondents reported needing money for building repairs, and the average funds needed amounts to $4.3 million per school. In 2016, Detroit became a symbol for this need to improve school conditions when teachers in Detroit staged a “sickout,” protesting the dangerous and unhealthy conditions of their schools. Taking to social media, teachers posted images of rats, mold, falling ceiling tiles, warped gym floors, faulty windows, and even mushrooms and other fungi growing through the walls inside school hallways. Similar conditions in California led to a lawsuit against the state in 2000, for which the settlement reached in 2005 still has not produced the needed changes in facilities.

While urban school systems tend to dominate national discourse, South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame” also emerged as one symbol of the need to address school conditions in rural areas. The corridor gained a national spotlight when a letter from a young student, Ty’Sheoma Bethea, in Dillon, SC, caught the attention of newly elected President Obama. Bethea’s letter, written as a class assignment and sent to the US Congress and president by her teacher, detailed the poor conditions of the school, including a crumbling 200-year-old building, holes in the floors of mobile classrooms, out-of-order bathrooms, frequent loss of electricity, and outdated books. The dual senses of hope and desperation in the letter, evidencing the need to provide better resources to improving infrastructures, led President Obama to invite Bethea to sit by the First Lady in one of his first addresses to Congress.


Despite using symbols and language of social equality, the last three administrations have each buttressed neoliberal educational reforms that center individual liberty at the expense of social equity—namely, “school choice” initiatives such as vouchers, charter schools, and online education. . . . These approaches illuminate how strongly the idea of “equity in education,” a key component in human rights discourses of education, runs counter to the hegemonic practice of education in the US, despite the appropriation of the language of equality.


Despite using symbols and language of social equality, the last three administrations have each buttressed neoliberal educational reforms that center individual liberty at the expense of social equity—namely, “school choice” initiatives such as vouchers, charter schools, and online education. Federal funding programs developed as a product of fights for equity have instead been used as mechanisms to adopt punitive approaches to schools facing unequal conditions (Bush); develop entrepreneurial competitions between states (Obama); and impose neo-Malthusian austerity measures (Trump). Indeed, the Trump administration has proposed cutting $86.4 million towards funding for improvement of school facilities.

These approaches illuminate how strongly the idea of “equity in education,” a key component in human rights discourses of education, runs counter to the hegemonic practice of education in the US, despite the appropriation of the language of equality. In my research, I examined how, for example, standardized testing and accountability regimes exacerbated racial inequities in schools, while the Bush administration appropriated the Children’s Defense Fund’s motto[1] in calling the measures “No Child Left Behind.” The current budget proposal reflects and exaggerates this much longer conflict between UN human rights discourses on education with US notions of “liberty” in education. The extent to which the US can achieve the SDGs depends on counter-hegemonic movements, which also have a long and deep history of fighting for educational opportunity for all and social justice. Perhaps these movements can unpack and shift the sentiment observed by Ahmed and Kozol: why Americans permit such stark educational inequities and injustice.

 

NOTE
[1]
Edelman, Marian Wright. 2002. “Mr. President, We Want Our Slogan Back.” National Catholic Reporter 38 (35): 25.

CITE AS
Johnson, Amanda Walker. 2018. “Held Back: The Reluctance to Adopt a Human Rights Approach to Education in the US.” American Anthropologist website, March 20.

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