Users do not care about what is inside the box, as long as the box does what they need done. – Jef Raskin
By William A. Foster, IV
It was one evening some years ago that my father and I had a debate in my parents living room about an article that I read in the New York Times concerning prep schools versus public schools and how much they spend per student. The New York Times stated that Philips Exeter Academy in 2008 spent $63,500 per student annually, while a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that the U.S. as a whole spends about $12,000 per student annually. My father could not understand what PEA could possibly be spending over five times the amount on. I said to him it was the difference between showing a kid a map of India and taking them there. That being said, as someone who comes from a family of educators and being a community college professor for a period of time and seeing just what happens when an adult has had a weak K-12 experience, I often ponder ways in which communities can go about closing education gaps among groups and strengthening the education infrastructure.
Perhaps the worst kept secret is that groups who come from disadvantaged backgrounds have a chronic gap when it comes to education. By age three, children from lower income homes have heard 30 million fewer words. The national high school graduation rate for African Americans is 73 percent, which is almost 10 percentage points lower than the national average and 14 percentage points lower than European Americans. There have been calls for a universal Pre-K, which sounds good in theory but probably will ultimately do just as much harm as the current system. Many have argued that the U.S. does not spend enough on education, this despite the OECD saying that the U.S. actually spends more than any other country on education. The report according to CBS News that, “In 2010, the United States spent 7.3 percent of its gross domestic product on education, compared with the 6.3 percent average of other OECD countries.” This appears to be not a case of not spending too much, but spending it poorly. As an economist and investor myself, one of the most important things for my firm is capital allocation. It is not just a matter of how much we are spending, but where and how we are allocating that spending. Simply spending more is not always an answer to fixing problems as many on the political left suggest, but neither is allowing students to go to better schools through vouchers a sensible alternative as those on the political right suggest which would have devastating effects on the economics of poor and middle class communities. In essence, what is needed is a better creation of supplemental education for those communities. Supplemental education is the ability to access learning away from the four walls of a school.
For many upper income families, museums, summer camps, and private tutors provide the moonshot to the education they receive during their K-12 matriculation. These experiences and building blocks add to a substantive educational gap between the haves and have nots and while there are always many fascinating high brow proposals of how to fix education for underserved communities, we often ignore the simplest. Two things of note should be focused on to that respect. First, provide supplemental education where the people you hope to reach spend their time. Secondly, keep it simple. Academics, again I come from a family of them, while I admire their ability to convey information, they are at times too smart for their own good. In other words, they can make one plus one into the next coming of Einstein’s theory of relativity if you give them enough time. For underserved communities though it is often at the foundational level where they are most deficient. An issue that then cascades and compounds year after year as they progressed through secondary and then into adulthood. It was the simple foundation that they missed and that their kids are missing that could have moved their trajectory. So how do cities both meet the people where they are and more importantly where their time is “hostage” and and also keep it simple? Bus stops.
That is right, bus stops. New York City has 16,350 of them, Los Angeles has 15,967 bus stops, Chicago has 10,813 bus stops, and Houston has approximately 9,000 according to a Twitter inquiry. These are the four largest urban cities in the United States of America with a combined population of 17.5 million, a number equivalent to 5.4 percent of the entire U.S. population. The four cities ability to serve low income and middle class families is obviously magnified just by the probability of the sheer size of the populations they have that will fall within those confines. The poverty levels for the four aforementioned cities is also surprisingly inversely correlated to their public transpiration size with New York City’s 20.3 percent, L.A.’s 22 percent, Chicago’s 22.6 percent, and Houston’s 22.9 percent. According to Pew Research Center, “Americans who are lower-income, black or Hispanic, immigrants or under 50 are especially likely to use public transportation on a regular basis.” There is not enough research to show a correlation to public transportation’s reduction in poverty, but one can access that the easement of which labor can move farther distances allows for more economic opportunities to be gained. Therefore, if a low-income community has access to affordable public transportation and their own community lacks economic opportunity, the ease by which they can move into areas of stronger economic prowess may allow them work opportunities they may not otherwise have available. However, while there maybe no correlation, there is opportunity to educate and we know that correlates to reducing poverty.
Imagine for a moment that each bus stop, both children and adults, are introduced to a digital screen (think those annoying “commercials” at gas station pumps) that circulates a plethora of vocabulary words, basic mathematics problems, and science and history clips. Just the basics, but again fundamental. If a city really wants to get out of the box, even introducing lessons in financial, health, and government literacy. If done in concert with the school districts in the city, teachers at the elementary through college levels could be featured in these videos and those teachers targeted in bus stops within their teaching area. This may also go a long way into reestablishing what many now complain about as the broken bond between parents, their children, and the teachers who educate them. The videos produce a familiarity for the teacher in the same way that people develop affinities for celebrities they have never met. Of course, in this age where municipals are tight on funds, just how does all of this get paid for? This is a financial journalism publication after all. The PPP (Private-Public Partnership) model would be most advantageous. Companies in the city, New York City, Houston, and Chicago have 143 Fortune 1000 companies combined, would foot the majority of the bill for the producing of the digital content and refitting of the bus stops. Just what those companies would receive in return beyond goodwill and basic advertising would be left up to the leadership of the city to negotiate.
I grew up in a household and family where education and learning was not only a family value and expectation, it was something I was immersed in as I reflect in what seemed like at all times. There were always books around, much of my life existed on a college campus as my mother has been a professor for almost four decades, trips to museums, engagement with the arts, and as a result me and my sister’s probability of succeeding was given a great advantage over many of our peers. Education is a wholistic lifestyle that one is immersed throughout their lives. The sooner that immersion, the more often that immersion, then probability of success is sure to follow. My sister and I were at an advantage, we were a privileged pair whose family can trace our educational heritage back four generations to my great-grandfather and great-grandmother who were college graduates. That is not the reality for most low income and middle class families. They are families trying to take that next step, even if they do not know which step to take often. In order to increase their probability towards that success, cities have to acknowledge that they are often in poor schools to begin with and that they need more, much more. The best return on investment is often achieved in using the infrastructure that already exist and that meets citizens where they are.
As Jef Raskin alludes to in his quote, communities will not care where quality education happens be it in a school or at a bus stop, so long as it happens. The ability to convert bus stops into head start and continuing education facilities for a city is something that truly does what needs to be done.