Better Schools Won’t Fix America

Like many rich Americans, I used to think educational investment could heal the country’s ills—but I was wrong. Fighting inequality must come first.

By Nick Hanauer | The Atlantic Magazine | July 2, 2019

Long ago, i was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.

This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy. As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.

Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission. I co-founded the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education. I joined Bill Gates, Alice Walton, and Paul Allen in giving more than $1 million each to an effort to pass a ballot measure that established Washington State’s first charter schools. All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools—if we modernized our curricula and our teaching methods, substantially increased school funding, rooted out bad teachers, and opened enough charter schools—American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again. Graduation rates and wages would increase, poverty and inequality would decrease, and public commitment to democracy would be restored.

What I’ve realized, decades late, is that educationism is tragically misguided. American workers are struggling in large part because they are underpaid—and they are underpaid because 40 years of trickle-down policies have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like me. Americans are more highly educated than ever before, but despite that, and despite nearly record-low unemployment, most American workers—at all levels of educational attainment—have seen little if any wage growth since 2000.

To be clear: We should do everything we can to improve our public schools. But our education system can’t compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans. Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned school-reform program can’t improve educational outcomes if it ignores the single greatest driver of student achievement: household income.

For all the genuine flaws of the American education system, the nation still has many high-achieving public-school districts. Nearly all of them are united by a thriving community of economically secure middle-class families with sufficient political power to demand great schools, the time and resources to participate in those schools, and the tax money to amply fund them. In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow. But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.

By distracting us from these truths, educationism is part of the problem.

Whenever i talk with my wealthy friends about the dangers of rising economic inequality, those who don’t stare down at their shoes invariably push back with something about the woeful state of our public schools. This belief is so entrenched among the philanthropic elite that of America’s 50 largest family foundations—a clique that manages $144 billion in tax-exempt charitable assets—40 declare education as a key issue. Only one mentions anything about the plight of working people, economic inequality, or wages. And because the richest Americans are so politically powerful, the consequences of their beliefs go far beyond philanthropy.

A major theme in the educationist narrative involves the “skills gap”—the notion that decades of wage stagnation are largely a consequence of workers not having the education and skills to fill new high-wage jobs. If we improve our public schools, the thinking goes, and we increase the percentage of students attaining higher levels of education, particularly in the STEM subjectsscience, technology, engineering, and math—the skills gap will shrink, wages will rise, and income inequality will fall.

The real story is more complicated, and more troubling. Yes, there is a mismatch between the skills of the present and the jobs of the future. In a fast-changing, technologically advanced economy, how could there not be? But this mismatch doesn’t begin to explain the widening inequality of the past 40 years.

In 1970, when the golden age of the American middle class was nearing its peak and inequality was at its nadir, only about half of Americans ages 25 and older had a high-school diploma or the equivalent. Today, 90 percent do. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans attaining a college degree has more than tripled since 1970. But while the American people have never been more highly educated, only the wealthiest have seen large gains in real wages. From 1979 to 2017, as the average real annual wages of the top 1 percent of Americans rose 156 percent (and the top .01 percent’s wages rose by a stunning 343 percent), the purchasing power of the average American’s paycheck did not increase.

Some educationists might argue that the recent gains in educational attainment simply haven’t been enough to keep up with the changing economy—but here, yet again, the truth appears more complicated. While 34 percent of Americans ages 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 26 percent of jobs currently require one. The job categories that are growing fastest, moreover, don’t generally require a college diploma, let alone a STEM degree. According to federal estimates, four of the five occupational categories projected to add the most jobs to the economy over the next five years are among the lowest-paying jobs: “food preparation and serving” ($19,130 in average annual earnings), “personal care and service” ($21,260), “sales and related” ($25,360), and “health-care support” ($26,440). And while the number of jobs that require a post secondary education is expected to increase slightly faster than the number that don’t, the latter group is expected to dominate the job market for decades to come. In October 2018 there were 1 million more job openings than job seekers in the U.S. Even if all of these unfilled jobs were in STEM professions at the top of the pay scale, they would be little help to most of the 141 million American workers in the bottom nine income deciles.

It’s worth noting that workers with a college degree enjoy a significant wage premium over those without. (Among people over age 25, those with a bachelor’s degree had median annual earnings of $53,882 in 2017, compared with $32,320 for those with only a high-school education.) But even with that advantage, adjusted for inflation, average hourly wages for recent college graduates have barely budged since 2000, while the bottom 60 percent of college graduates earn less than that group did in 2000. A college diploma is no longer a guaranteed passport into the middle class.

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