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High Priority

July/August 2019

By Marta Perez Drake

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Social sciences expert Marta Tienda sounds the alarm on rising inequality and underinvestment in higher learning at a time when replenishing the labor force should be a national imperative.

Prior to and including her tenure as Maurice P. During ’22 Professor in Demographic Studies and Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., Marta Tienda has spent years researching, presenting, and writing broadly about myriad population shifts and their implications. Her research has also traced what Tienda calls the “contours of inequality” that have surfaced at various times throughout American society generally and within the U.S. education system specifically.

Marta Tienda

In this interview with Business Officer magazine, Tienda suggests that unwelcome consequences await if we as a nation fail to make education accessible and aligned to match current labor market demands.

What drew your research to the demography of inequality, and what keeps you engaged and focused?

Research is a process of discovery, and one that is all the more important as social conditions change. Although I have written my share of technical papers, it is the bigger think pieces that have added clarity about the social and economic implications of demographic change.

In particular, three “reflective” moments have shaped my recent thinking about the demography of inequality. The first was when I chaired the panel on Hispanics for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine from 2004 to 2006.

During that year-and-a-half study period, a panel of experts interrogated big questions: What is the significance of the Hispanic population in the United States? Are Hispanics unique? If so, how does it matter?

What did the panel find?

The big storyline was that Hispanics were coming of age in an aging society. Yes, population size and growth were important, but to understand the social significance, it mattered immensely that the growth, diversification, and geographic dispersal of Hispanics occurred against the backdrop of rising social and economic inequality, underinvestment in higher education, and the onset of an aging population. And, this was even before the Great Recession exacerbated the squeeze on state and local school budgets.

What is the significance of a younger Hispanic population within a society that is growing older?

Actually, this gets to the second big aha moment in my thinking about the economic implications of demographic change. Boomers like myself came of age at a time when the federal government invested massive resources in public education. Not only were the birth cohorts large—what demographers dubbed the “baby boom”—but a large percentage of the big birth cohorts went to college because the U.S. government invested in public higher education and also K–12.

This massification of higher education was made possible with Pell grants, expanded funding for research and development, and the GI Bill, which helped Vietnam veterans like my brother. But, let me be clear: The impetus for the expansion of higher education and the infusion of federal funds in public education that ensued was not an act of altruism. Sputnik was the wake-up call that focused attention on the urgency of training the best and brightest to make sure that the Russians did not beat us in the space race or on any other scientific frontier.

This brings me to a third moment of reflection about the contours of educational inequality in response to your first question. When invited to deliver the 2016 Brown v. Board of Education lecture for the American Educational Research Association, I planned to stay in my comfort zone and speak about higher education with a focus on the challenges facing the burgeoning Hispanic school-age population. I also wanted to call attention to the 1947 Mendez v. Westminster federal court case about de facto segregation of Mexican-origin children in Orange County, Calif.

This case is less well known than Brown, but it is very important because the arguments used in the Brown decision had their origins in the Mendez case. It was in the Mendez case that a lawyer first used social science to argue that segregation fostered inferiority of Mexican children. The decision—which survived appeal—led to the end of public school segregation in California. Even more important, it provided a template for the legal arguments used in the Brown decision.

To prepare for that lecture I also read about the history of U.S. public education—why the very idea of public funding for education was an innovation that catapulted the United States to a hegemonic position in human capital. Digging into historical materials exposed rather dramatic discrepancies in per-pupil funding between the North and the South; between urban and rural areas; and between schools that serve rich and poor students. Simply put, there are deeply baked-in inequities in our public education system.

What is even more concerning is that during the Great Recession, many states balanced their budgets by slashing education. Some cuts were so severe that even a decade into the recovery the per-pupil budgets had not been fully restored to prerecession levels. This is extremely shortsighted because underinvestment in education compromises the future productivity of the country.

How so?

As one example, the big social welfare programs for seniors—think Medicare and Social Security—are federally funded. But, the programs for young people—most importantly, education—are predominantly a state’s responsibility. What’s more, whereas the federal government can run a deficit, states must balance their budgets. Some do so by skimming retirement accounts, but the biggest gouges come from school budgets. Add to this the fact that we have a growing problem not only of inadequate, but also of unequal public education funding, and that the contours of inequality are color-coded.

What do you mean by that?

Two points come to mind: One is about persisting—and even growing—ethnic and racial disparities in educational attainment levels. Another is about the statutory foundations of school funding formulas across states.

Regarding the first point, in several papers I have described unequal educational attainment levels by age cohorts and among demographic groups, illustrating how the baby boom generation amassed an unprecedented amount of human capital for reasons I mentioned earlier. Yet, averages conceal the enormous disparities among and within states in per-pupil expenditures. Research for my Brown lecture exposed myriad facets of educational stratification that compromise students’ educational opportunities.

Can you talk about these facets?

For example, state of birth is associated with educational opportunity because not all states tax incomes to fund schools. Rather, some rely on regressive property tax systems to generate revenue for education. It is an open secret that schools in wealthy neighborhoods are relatively well-funded because property values are a big source of school revenue. For students living in low-income neighborhoods, opportunities to learn are compromised by limited access to educational materials; extracurricular activities; safety; and well-trained, experienced teachers. Students whose educational careers begin with such handicaps never reach their potential. These are not individual handicaps but, rather, opportunity handicaps.

I am not suggesting that education success requires equal outcomes. What I am saying is that unequal opportunities to learn promise, if not guarantee, unequal educational outcomes.

What is your second point about funding formulas?

The second point concerns the right to a public education. Where does this right reside? How are students protected?

Having focused extensively on equity and access to higher education, I mistakenly assumed that access to education was guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. After all, litigation fighting unequal access—whether due to segregation or denial of admission—revolved around the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. So I thought that the right to education was a fundamental right; it is not. Interestingly, from my research I also learned that all the nations that have surpassed the United States in educational attainment do guarantee education as a protected right, either in the federal constitution or a separate document.

All of this is critical to our future prosperity in the United States because school segregation by race and income is increasing, which virtually guarantees that opportunities to learn will remain unequal or possibly even become more unequal.

Can you provide an example of why this is the case?

The decision in the 1973 San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez case was perhaps ahead of its time. The district court had sided with Rodriguez, as did the appellate court, so the case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. In the majority opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the district’s financing system based on local property taxes—which the plaintiff claimed led to wealth-based discrimination and unequal school financing—was not an unconstitutional violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. In other words, there is no fundamental right to education. Imagine that! Unequal schools are legal.

Some scholars have argued that the Rodriguez case was ahead of its time because it was litigated before the concept of educational adequacy was in vogue, which is different from educational equality. Educational adequacy—the premise that schools are supposed to prepare our young people to function in a postindustrial economy and satisfy labor market needs—might have resulted in a different decision.

But hindsight is 20/20, and it is impossible to know what the justices then, much less now, would have considered adequate. The Supreme Court does not rule on matters such as tolerable levels of inequality.

Where does this leave us?

Today, districts use the courts to chisel away at egregious funding disparities that are rooted in outmoded funding formulas. Some efforts have resulted in improvements, but I shudder to think about the talent squandered during protracted periods of litigation for the right to learn in safe environments, with well-trained teachers, under conditions that promote curiosity and intellectual growth.

District-by-district legal skirmishes do not have the same impact as a Supreme Court decision that bans bad practices, such as de jure segregation. Sadly, de jure segregation is legal and today drives rising school segregation by race and income.

There are many layers to all this, but the evolution of per-pupil expenditures across states is quite revealing. Even as states were joining what is now the United States, there were large interstate differences in amounts of taxes levied for schools. It is important to understand that the right to a public education—one supported by taxes—resides in state constitutions. State and local authorities determine taxation rates and school funding formulas, with the federal government setting minima below which districts cannot fall.

So, for purposes of education, there is not a uniform social contract but, rather, 50 contracts—with many subcontracts that provide unequal opportunities to learn.

What has been the collective impact of states making their own determinations about education funding?

In going back to the 1880s and comparing states according to their average per-pupil expenditures on K–12 education, one striking disparity is between the North and the South, where African Americans and Mexicans were disproportionately concentrated. Even the white schools in the South were not as well-resourced as those in the North, but within the South, the schools designated for whites were far better resourced than those available to blacks.

The infusion of federal funds to public schools facilitated by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 helped narrow interstate and intrastate disparities in per-pupil expenditures after 1960. Unfortunately, the steep cuts in education funding triggered by the Great Recession have resulted in growing interstate and intrastate expenditure gaps. So, the progress made to narrow funding gaps for public educational institutions witnessed a backslide, with uneven recovery across states and by region.

Can you share an example?

States such as Texas, with large and fast-growing Hispanic populations, haven’t fully recovered from the backslide. I realize that media attention on the Southern border may give the impression that immigration is the driver of population growth in Texas, but that is not the case.

Rapid demographic growth between 2000 and 2010 gave Texas four additional representatives in Congress. However, the growth was largely due to births, not immigration—and these young people cannot vote for increases in school funding until they are 18.

But, it is not only K–12 funding that is lagging behind the growing demand for education. State support for public higher education also has eroded over time, with the consequence that the share of college costs shouldered by parents and students has risen. As a baby boomer, I was lucky because tuition grants made college affordable even for a student from a poor, working-class background with immigrant parents.

College tuition today takes a much bigger bite of the family budget than was true during the 1970s and 1980s, which to some extent makes public education today a private good. What’s more, one reason the United States has fallen behind many industrialized peers is that the average cost of our college degrees is among the highest.

With soaring tuition set against the backdrop of economic inequality, access is mostly governed by affordability—by economics, not demography. To some extent, the relentless focus on affirmative action sucks the oxygen from discussions about how to broaden educational opportunity so that education approximates a fundamental right, even if not formally enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

What implications does this have beyond education attainment levels?

First, I think we take our public education for granted. It is now standard to want everyone to have a high school education. The good news is that the proportion of the U.S. population without a high school diploma is very low, even for Hispanics. But, a high school credential today for most people doesn’t guarantee a living wage or job stability, mostly because the nature of the labor market has changed. The power of unions to bargain for living wages has also waned.

Recently, there has been a push for higher minimum wages in a handful of progressive cities, and the prolonged tight labor market has finally started to push wages higher. But, the United States doesn’t have a commitment similar to countries such as Australia, where the wage structure has been compressed to make sure that all starting wages are livable wages. What the United States does have is an excellent system of higher education that can serve national interests—if access is broadened in ways that parallel the experience of the boomer cohorts.

What most concerns you about perpetuating a demography of inequality?

What keeps me up at night are these diversity narratives that fuel public anxiety about us versus them—often simplified as whites and nonwhites. For instance, media stories about whites becoming the minority population by a certain year fuel the anxiety that nonwhite others—the them—are taking over the United States. Such narratives activate group threat and fears about competition for resources. Today, immigration is one issue that fuels group threat as well as fears that immigrants take jobs away from natives and drain public coffers.

The fact is that the United States needs immigration—in large part because overall population growth has slowed and we need more workers to serve an aging population. As one example, the way our Social Security system is set up, boomers like me depend on younger workers to generate earnings for our Social Security checks. In the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, I argued that the fast-growing Hispanic population offered an opportunity to garner a demographic dividend via educational investments so that young people could be maximally productive and generate ample revenue for the aging boomer cohorts.

How can we better argue for this need to replenish the labor force with skilled workers and to change the narrative of us versus them?

The business community has an important role to play here. With limits on the flow of skilled immigrants, the business community is concerned. Yet, I would ask: Why should we have to import skilled workers when the United States has some of the best universities in the world? Wouldn’t it be great if we had a huge coalition of firms such as Microsoft Corp., General Motors Co., Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others that rise to the occasion to develop public-private partnerships in the service of education?

Given that we have education social contracts buried in 50 state constitutions, it is difficult to gain traction to have something work at the national level. More viable as a first step might be place-based strategies to develop local initiatives that can bubble up and set promising examples. The question is: How many generations of talent do we need to hemorrhage first? Developing homegrown talent can take a long time to change the narrative at the national level. That said, we can and should put more focus on state-level changes in support of local initiatives.

What message would you share with college and university business and finance leaders?

I would love to see our education leaders take on the role of changing the narrative by pairing with the business community to make education a top-line national imperative. There is strength in partnership but only if sustained over a long period and in all domains of teaching and skill development.

Education leaders should not be the only ones clamoring for education funding. The business community needs an educated workforce and bears an important responsibility in making that happen. I think of immigrants learning English on the shop floor of the Ford Motor Co. during the early 20th century; both the workers and the company benefited. I think of the various organizations promoting immigrant integration—evening schools for adults, YWCAs, and libraries promoting naturalization.

The drive to unify the nation is an education agenda that involves all sectors of the economy, and education–business partnerships will inevitably capitalize on diversity rather than demonize differences.

MARTA PEREZ DRAKE is senior vice president, member engagement, NACUBO.

Related Topics

Unequal opportunities to learn promise, if not guarantee, unequal educational outcomes.

With soaring tuition set against the backdrop of economic inequality, access is mostly governed by affordability—by economics, not demography.