The Wall Street Journal

May 29, 2002


Closing the Education Gap

To appreciate the significance of black academic gains over the past four decades, it helps first to understand the close links between educational achievement and life prospects in America today.

According to the Census Bureau, high school dropouts do more than just damage their employment and earning potential. They're also much likelier to wind up on public assistance, either as single parents (women) or incarcerated (men). A less educated society is less civil; half of all state prison inmates didn't complete high school.

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At the other end of the learning curve are college graduates. The data show that they tend to live longer and healthier lives than those who end their education in high school. On average, college grads read more, volunteer more, vote in greater numbers and produce offspring who themselves do better in school than children of parents without college degrees.

And then there are the monetary advantages associated with learning. The Department of Education reports that "In 1999, 25- to 34-year-old males and females who completed a 4-year college degree earned 58 and 92 percent more per year, respectively, than those who obtained no more than a high school diploma or its equivalent." Compare this with the year 1980, when the earnings gap between the college- and noncollege-educated was 19% for males and 52% for females. Over a lifetime, the college graduate will earn an estimated $1.6 million -- nearly double the estimate for high school graduates. Since 1975, the earnings of most high school drop-outs haven't even kept pace with inflation.

Viewed against this backdrop, the census figures on black academic progress are especially noteworthy. Today nearly 80% of blacks over the age of 25 hold high school degrees, up from 50% in 1980 and just 37% in 1960. What is more, 87% of blacks between ages 25 and 29 are high school graduates, the same as whites.

At the college level, achievement is also impressive. Forty years ago, just 3% of blacks held a college degree. By 2000, 17% did, a record number that has more than doubled since 1980, which indicates that blacks are not only more educated today but also obtaining higher degrees at a faster pace than in previous decades.

All that said, blacks still lag behind educationally. Test-score differences between black and white students persist, from fourth-grade proficiency exams straight through to SAT scores. As William Howell and Paul Peterson note in their new book, "The Education Gap": "A half-century after Brown v. Board of Education, the test scores of blacks and whites remain, on average, strikingly dissimilar." The average white student, they write, "scores as high as an African American student who ranks among the top third of his or her racial group."

Black scholars like John McWhorter have written that some of this results from a black culture that has self-defeatingly associated academic pursuits with "acting white." Now that's changing. Polls show that black parents want better schools for their children, but many lack the means to move to a better school district. From a policy perspective, vouchers would go a long way toward providing equal educational opportunities for these families.

The gains made to date are not insignificant but they are insufficient, and they've come despite the declining quality of urban public schools that most black children have no choice but to attend. Results from voucher programs that do exist -- in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida -- show that school choice serves these students best. We need more such programs nationwide.

Political opposition is formidable and comes from teachers unions and others who have a vested, if perverse, interest in what amounts to keeping poor and minority students in dysfunctional schools and separated from their richer and mostly white peers.

Washington can only do so much to address the issue, and it didn't help that President Bush dropped choice initiatives from his education bill last year. But most of the work to be done will take place at the state and local level, and in the courts. The last great barrier to racial equality in America is urban education reform.

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Updated May 29, 2002

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