Economic Inequality Essay

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The study of the relationship between economic inequality and educational opportunity has been guided by at least three assumptions. First, education is a crucial factor in improving one’s social and economic status. Second, the quality of schooling one receives is related to the degree of social and economic success one achieves. And, third, the society has some level of responsibility for the type and quality of schooling available to its citizens. Following a description of the historical context of the relationship of education to economic inequality, this entry discusses two opposing perspectives from which that relationship has been interpreted. To conclude, several key legislative decisions and educational reform movements related to economic inequality and the schools are summarized here.

Historical Context

Support for publicly funded education has, from its earliest attempts, been framed largely in terms of the need to provide for equal economic opportunity through equal educational opportunities. While couched in the language of religious salvation, even early mandatory education legislation, like the Massachusetts School Law of 1642 and the “Old Deluder Satan Act” of 1647, could be considered economic legislation, given the close tie between Puritan views of salvation and a person’s work ethic and the fear that the poor and unchurched might be a threat to the social and economic order.

Certainly by the time of early nationhood the notion that education was closely tied to social mobility and personal advancement and should be available to all American citizens was well established. More importantly, what was established was the inconsistency between rhetoric calling for free public schooling and new curricula and the reality that most educational ventures were actually local, erratically funded projects that were not available to large segments of society. From then on, the challenge to any claim that education can be an economic equalizer would involve understanding the relationship between the quality of schooling provided and future economic success, and coming to some agreement as to how to provide high quality educational opportunity to all citizens.

Two Conflicting Perspectives

Two perspectives have come to characterize the study of the relationship between schooling and economic inequality. One is sometimes called a functionalist perspective. This perspective, often associated with conservative political and economic ideology, assumes that one of the roles of the school is to justify inequalities in society by explaining that wealth and status are the proper rewards of educational attainment. An underlying understanding is that the degree of educational and economic success people attain is due largely, if not solely, to the choices they make and their inherent or natural gifts. From this perspective, failure to attain one’s economic goals through education is due less to any societal inequity than to the personal qualities of the individual or the technical or professional failings of individual teachers and schools. Among the influential contemporary advocates of this position are Diane Ravitch, Chester Finn, and William Bennett. In recent years, this position has also provided the sociological and ideological bases for proponents of educational vouchers, school choice, and other market-based reforms.

It follows then that for schools to do a better job of bringing about economic equality, they need to strive for greater personal and institutional accountability, responsibility, and efficiency. This can happen by helping students make better personal choices and take on new skills and values, or when schools are seen as the cause of students’ failures, may be a matter of correcting the school’s low expectations or forcing schools to become more efficient and effective or close their doors as a result of free market competition with other schools of choice.

An alternative analytical framework is based on the notion that economic inequality is the result not so much of individual choice or limitation as of well-established societal barriers to economic advancement. From this perspective, often associated with liberal or progressive political and economic ideology, the critique of the relationship of public education and economic inequality is systemic in nature and seeks to expose those deeply rooted barriers and the role played by schools in reinforcing the cultural assumptions and values that sustain them.

The more radical statement of this perspective argues that schools are among the social institutions that reinforce the existing social and economic order and are relatively powerless to correct economic inequities. Schools reward qualities like passivity and obedience and discourage creativity and spontaneity because that is what a capitalist economy demands. Even critics sympathetic to this general position realize that such an interpretation fails to take into account the ways in which existing schools can undermine capitalist goals and overlooks the potential of individuals to actively resist the control of others and construct their own futures.

What has emerged in recent years is a more refined and empowering critique of the school’s role in reinforcing economic inequality. This includes an emphasis on an analysis of the roles played by individuals in succumbing to or resisting dominant groups; the relationships between social class, race, and gender; and the development of what has been called a critical pedagogy. This refers to ways of teaching that are intended to help people to become more aware of their cultural, political, and economic context and those systemic factors that lead to discrimination or oppression. They then learn ways in which literacy and other intellectual tools can be used to bring about economic and political change.

Some Key Events

Perhaps the earliest, deliberate attempt to create equal educational opportunity and erase some social class barriers was Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to pass his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge in 1778. In the bill he proposed a system of free schooling through the university level based solely on the merit and achievement of the students. Another important step toward equality of opportunity intended to address economic inequalities was the “common school” movement that began in the late 1830s. While the primary motivation behind the movement was to create a uniform system of schools in which all American young people, especially recent immigrants, would be steeped in common American values, it was also argued that if poor immigrant children had access to free public schooling they would be able to increase their education level and, thereby, their economic and social standing. Both efforts are not without critics who argue that simple access to schooling cannot overcome the advantages of wealth; it is clear that at least the rhetoric acknowledged existing inequalities and the need to lessen them.

Any discussion of attempts to address economic inequality through education must include the efforts of the federal government during the 1950s and 1960s. An important step was the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which acknowledged the connection between race and economic and educational inequality and declared that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional and could not provide equality of educational opportunity. The 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity study, which is often called the “Coleman Report,” further documented the inequality in schools based on the economics of individual communities, and the federal government responded with a variety of well-funded legislation designed to provide additional educational opportunities and resources to children in poverty. The government’s actions extended to other social spheres and institutions as well.

Few critics or defenders of public education will argue that schools have had a lasting impact on lessening economic inequalities, especially given recent data that shows the gap between rich and poor to be increasing. Recently, efforts to lessen economic inequality have gone in at least three directions. The federal government, through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, has turned its efforts to demanding that schools be more accountable to and have higher expectations for the achievement of poor and minority students. The government is also attempting to assist a second approach that is more populist in tone and direction, the creation of charter schools designed to use public money to create schools tailored to special interests and local needs and the funding of voucher programs that allow parents in low-achieving schools to move their children to the school of their choice. A third trend involves challenging the constitutionality of state policies that fund public education primarily through local property taxes, since that practice is considered by some to be one of root causes of inequality of educational opportunity by ensuring that schools in wealthy communities and large tax bases will always have more than those located in poor communities with little source of consistent funding.


  1. Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Chubb, J., & Moe, T. (1990). Politics, markets, and America’s schools. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
  3. Coleman, J. S. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Office of Education.
  4. Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities. New York: Crown.
  5. Ravitch, D. (1983). The troubled crusade: American education, 1945–1980. New York: Basic Books.

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