Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement
By Jean Anyon
Routledge, 2005, 240 pp. $22.95
Public education is often touted as the panacea for overcoming poverty and climbing the social and economic ladder. Yet it has also become the rhetorical whipping boy for politicians and policy wonks who level the finger of blame for our country’s economic woes squarely at teachers and schools.
Jean Anyon has long been a vital part of this public discussion about the relationship between schools and society. Her now classic and oft-cited piece, “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” outlines how children of different economic classes receive very different types of educations. For well over two decades, Anyon has voiced powerful critiques of educational inequality in this country and its relationship to economic inequality. Anyon has once again entered the fray with her most recent book, Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement.
Anyon’s aims are two-fold. The first half of the book is devoted to the political economy of federal social policy and education. Here Anyon advances one of her central theses, that “macroeconomic policies like those regulating the minimum wage, job availability, tax rates, federal transportation, and affordable housing create conditions in cities that no existing educational policy or urban school reform can transcend.”
For those of us who see public education as a place to resist social inequality, Anyon’s claim can be difficult to swallow. But in the first few chapters of Radical Possibilities she presents a mountain of evidence about just how connected macroeconomic policies are with student and school achievement.
Anyon points to several studies where test-score achievement seems to be directly correlated to family income, and that indicate subsequent increases in income have resulted in educational gains. The problem, then, comes more from inequitable corporate and local tax laws, lack of affordable housing, poverty-level minimum wages, and inadequate transportation for working-class parents to get to and from work. For Anyon, these are the real sources of educational inequality in urban centers.
Anyon’s solution, and the second aim of Radical Possibilities, is to focus on social movement building that addresses these issues. Again she provides a bevy of information about the politics of macroeconomic policy. For instance, she points out that if the United States adopted the Swiss system of wealth tax—an annual tax on an individual’s total wealth instead of the U.S. system of taxing one’s income—the U.S. federal government would have collected an additional $52 billion in 1998. This money, Anyon points out, could have been devoted to inner-city development programs like affordable housing, adequate transportation, and schools.
Alas, we are clearly not in Switzerland. So what do we do? Anyon offers that public education is the perfect arena to build a progressive social reform movement. She provides several examples where communities are organizing around both social and educational equality. This list includes, among others, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), made up of roughly 150,000 member families with low and moderate incomes with 750 neighborhood chapters in 60 cities. ACORN played a decisive role in 2002 in organizing Brooklyn parents to vote against the privatization of their schools by Edison, Inc. ACORN has also been active in school funding issues, affordable housing, living wage, and community reinvestment.
I’ve been waiting for Radical Possibilities for some time, mainly because Anyon gives me the empirical data that I’ve longed for. Research about the relationship between the economy and education reached a peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While there has been a simmer of ongoing discussion of the subject since then, I’ve always felt a gap. Radical Possibilities reminds us that effective and lasting education reform is deeply connected to community and social reform. Of late, this connection has regularly been lost within the public discussions and policy debates.
As we bounce back and forth from the silver bullet of standards to the silver bullet of small schools to the silver bullet of high-stakes testing, we can see how the absence of economic reform informs what types of changes are made in public schools. So even though the government announced that there are more than one million more people officially living in poverty this year, it is unlikely that policymakers will see the relationship between that fact and the educational under-achievement of poor kids—other than to blame the schools for a lack of job training while dismissing the actual lack of jobs in the first place.
But Anyon knows better. She knows that there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and she knows that the few jobs that are available don’t offer livable wages.
As the stakes surrounding No Child Left Behind continue to rise, and as the rancor of resistance to the federal law continues to grow, Radical Possibilities provides us with both a target (federal social/economic policies) and a map of real and possible reforms and reform movements. This is perhaps the biggest strength of Anyon’s work: It is supremely grounded in social reality and explicitly concrete in its proposed solutions.
Radical Possibilities will make you angry, but it will leave you a little hopeful as well.