In the US, school even teaches you your level in society

James Richardson

The view from afar is often seductive. The United States has a rock- star presidential candidate with breathtaking prose and thoughtful solutions. But the next man in charge has a monumental task ahead - not Iraq, energy independence or finance reform, but fixing the mess that is public (tax-payer funded) schools.

The political and institutional forces in America are so strong that teachers are constantly working against a system to make a difference to pupils, especially if they are poor, black or Latino.

The state of Pennsylvania last year spent $20 billion (about pound;11 billion) educating 1.8 million children. Share that out equally and I would hazard a guess that schools would do a pretty good job. But it isn't shared out equally and the scale of inequality is staggering.

The richest district - which happens to be 85 per cent white and a large number of the parents have degrees - receives $21,000 per pupil per annum. In neighbouring Philadelphia school district, where 87 per cent are black and few parents have received higher education, the figure is $12,000. It is hardly surprising that the attainment gap is glaringly wide: only 12 per cent of black 12-year-olds are proficient at reading, compared with 39 per cent of whites. Both, you might say, are appallingly low.

This shocking inequality stems from an archaic law that requires schools to be funded through a property price tax. It doesn't take an Ivy League education to realise that big houses will pay higher taxes and therefore more richly fund schools.

The sinister element remains the degree to which the system disadvantages pupils who, by historical legacy, live in poverty.

In Philadelphia, the school system is the first of many experiences that let children know where they come in the societal pecking order. To be successful from such an inadequate start is rare. But it is seldom seen that way in the media, where the blame is divided between those who launch visceral attacks on poor schools and weak teachers, and a right-wing elite who whisper quietly that these neighbourhoods represent social Darwinism in action. The only people who still believe in social mobility are naive politicians and Republican voters who attest that America was built by people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

The current generation of pupils may be the first for whom life opportunities are fewer than for their parents. And after last week, when nearly a trillion dollars of public money was poured into the hole left by gluttonous bankers, don't expect the next president to untangle school funding in four years or mandate a law that requires a more equitable distribution of tax.

To work in a system that perpetuates deprivation and low expectations is more depressing than anything in Britain. So, as the US election cycle reaches its climax and the lure of charismatic politicians seems enticing, remember their education system and be thankful you aren't American.

James Richardson, Thouron scholar, graduate school of education, University of Pennsylvania, and former head of humanities at Sale High, Greater Manchester.

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