Opportunity Cost

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I’ve been looking to buy a house here in Oakland and the whole experience is a bit surreal.  I’ll save you the blow by blow, but looking at home values, school rankings, and the OPD’s crime map; a few things jump out at me.

Firstly, people talk a lot about crime in Oakland but looking at that map there’s crime almost everywhere (except Albany apparently – it’s a big blank spot on the crime map.  Either criminals avoid Albany like Kryptonite or they just don’t report their crime statistics).

Secondly, the quality of education a child receives in California varies even within a city.  This is not terribly surprising – lower income students whose parents are working two jobs to survive lack the support at home that wealthier kids get and are more likely to require extra resources to thrive.  What is surprising is not that there is disparity, but the degree of the disparity.

To put it bluntly, it is a crime that there are ANY 1-star public schools.

A decent public education is not a privilege, it is a fundamental human right.  It should not be dependent on what sort of neighborhood a child’s parents can afford.  Yes, some kids need extra help – the East Bay Express ran an article on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) recently showing almost 25% of the kids in Oakland have the disorder.  For kids growing up in communities torn asunder by poverty and the drug trade, life is literally a warzone and they have the scars to prove it.

This problem is by no means limited to low-income communities but is particularly acute for them.  Economic disparities tied to the fact that CA uses property taxes to fund its schools mean that poor neighborhoods have poor schools statewide, all you have to do is lay maps of school district funding, economic status, racial composition of the neighborhoods, and academic performance next to each other to see it, it’s hardly a secret.   To varying degrees, this is true in every state in the Union.   The fact is that our public schools remain largely separate and unequal and academic achievement in low-income schools is the exception rather then the rule.

There are two possible explanations for this poor performance – either poor and working class children are inherently inferior or they are being systematically  robbed of the opportunity to reach their full potential.  Despite our public claims as a nation to have moved beyond the racism and classism of our recent past, I think most people quietly believe the first explanation because admitting the possibility of the second would mean acknowledging that a monstrous wrong is being committed.  Social Psychologists call this the “just world” fallacy.  Most people want to believe the world is a fair place despite all evidence to the contrary and the only way to do that is quite often to blame the victims.

Allowing this to continue in the 21st century is simply unacceptable both from a social justice perspective and from an economic one.  There is no way to know how many potentially word-changing innovations we are missing out on because the people who could have invented them did not get the tools they needed to become the people they might have been.  The opportunity costs of underfunding our educational system in California and across America are incalculable. 

The simple fact is, millions of children are not getting the education that is their birthright.  They need and deserve help.  This is not a matter of altruism or charity, a simple cost-benefit analysis shows investing in education is the only rational choice.  Think about what it will cost to incarcerate them if they grow up without a decent education or opportunities vs what they could contribute to the economy if we made a relatively trivial investment in their futures.

By failing to invest in them and provide them with the opportunities which their peers who are lucky enough to be born into wealthier families take for granted, we are robbing them – and we are robbing ourselves and our future.  It is a crime, plain and simple.  And the Oakland Police Department’s crime map will continue to chart the after-effects of this greater societal crime as long as we allow it to continue.