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This pre-school disadvantage for poor people has far-reaching impacts, since students who participated in preschool education were 31 percent less likely to repeat a grade and 32 percent less likely to drop out of high school. Additionally, pre-primary education reduces crime rates where children who were randomly chosen from a low-income neighborhood to attend preschool were shown to have one-fifth the chance of becoming chronic criminal offenders as the matched control group.

America's Competitive Edge and Global Standing

The educational disadvantage of those poorer students continues as they grow older. Less than 10 percent of school revenue comes from the federal government while about 90 percent comes from the state and local governments. As a result, school funding varies from state to state, and funding within a state also tends to be unequal. The locally driven funding and its resulting funding gap causes poorer students to have even more learning disadvantages.

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Top teachers are more likely to gravitate toward the schools that pay the most, offer the best facilities, present the safest working environments, and provide the most advanced learning environments. Consequently, poorer students are far more likely to encounter uncertified teachers, fewer resources, and substandard facilities. In the s and s, courts in ten states found that public education funding was unconstitutional. Corresponding court-ordered changes in state funding closed the achievement gap in states required to make changes, while the achievement gap persists in states where no such order was forthcoming.

In this exam, the United States placed average to below average versus other developed countries in reading, science, and math, but these averages mask the influence of poverty. The average American PISA reading score for higher-income schools exceeded that of all other developed countries while the average score for lower-income American schools was far lower.

American students who move up one socioeconomic level would earn on average 60 points more in science, while students in other developed countries who did the same would gain fewer than 40 more PISA points. While it is not surprising to learn that wealthier students outperform poorer students, this extremely large disparity in performance among American students is of great concern because of what it implies about social mobility.


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  • The educational disparities between rich and poor Americans are exacerbated at the college level where affordability issues have become more acute over the past few decades. From to , the tuition and fees for attending in-state public universities rose an inflation-adjusted 79 percent.

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    American public universities have a higher average tuition than other developed countries. Public universities in Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain charge only minimal tuitions and in some countries Greece and most of Germany the public universities are tuition-free. This high cost of American higher education prevents nearly half of college-qualified high school graduates from attending a four-year institution and keeps nearly one-fourth from attending any college at all. In , Pell Grants, the need-based grants by the federal government to lower-income college undergraduates, covered about 75 percent of the cost of a four-year college; thirty years later, this had dropped to 33 percent.

    The ramifications of these issues with educational opportunities for the poor and the affordability of college are exemplified by the fact that the highest performing eighth graders from low socioeconomic backgrounds have about the same chance of completing a bachelors degree as the lowest performing eighth graders from high socioeconomic backgrounds. The latter were also about ten times more likely to complete a college degree than low-performing eighth graders from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

    America Has Lost Its Competitive Edge

    America, the land of opportunity, needs to create those opportunities for all its children. Given the tight link between poverty and education, America needs to focus on how to enable everyone to have access to quality education at all levels, from pre-primary to college. Conversely, relative mobility is how a person compares to their parent on the scale of income distribution.

    In modern times, relative mobility is becoming less feasible, as it has become more difficult and less statistically likely for people to move up in class.

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    Reeves also considers the case for downward mobility, or the necessary reality that because some people will move up on the scale, others must move down. He defines market meritocracy as: the system designed to filter merit often leaves behind those without opportunities to hone their merit, that is to say, wealthier kids are generally going to be more prepared for demonstrating merit through testing than poorer kids, due to increased access to available resources.

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    Reeves then defines and describes opportunity hoarding as methods like zoning laws, legacy admissions, and internships that keep the wealthy together, and the poor out, allowing the kids of the wealthy to more easily further themselves. Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he co-directs the Center on Children and Families. His Brookings research focuses on social mobility, inequality, and family change.

    College and the End of Upward Mobility.