“Let them eat cake,” is the classical statement by Marie Antoinette, wife of French King Louis XVI. In the French Revolution, she was the example of the rich and arrogant. Isolated in her palaces, she asked why the citizens were rioting. When told that it was because they had no bread, she famously replied that the masses should simply do what she would do if she ran out of bread: eat cake.
This phrase reflects how the rich can be blind to the conditions of the poor.
Today’s “Marie Antoinettes” include some Kansas school administrators and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. His proclamation last week that American schools should convert to 100 percent digital textbooks reveals again how he is isolated from the American public classroom and economically poor students.
One Presidential candidate apologized for his “47 percent” problem. This is Duncan’s “40 percent” problem.
Four-out-of-ten American households are not connected to broadband internet. Access is not spread evenly. Households and schools in the affluent suburbs of Johnson County may be close to 100 percent connected. That means that many western rural school districts may have fewer than half of households connected. And six percent of the most remote households, rich-or-not, are beyond the reach of any broadband internet.
The cost of buying a computer to keep up with new software and internet speed and memory demands requires an affluent income in a recession economy.
But forget the Education Secretary who is sheltered in FantasyLand, DC. I am now talking about a number of Kansas school administrators who have this Marie Antoinette attitude. Since 2008, a flood of data has shown the growing number of school children who live in poverty. A substantial number do not have enough to eat. It should be evident to school administrators who work outside of the rich suburbs that large numbers of households lack computers and internet connections.
At the end of August, I wrote the column “Only 60 Percent Have Internet Access.” The response I received from Kansas teachers and parents was shocking. Across Kansas, they told me that some school administrators had already moved teaching materials online, in some cases to cover their shortfall in textbooks. When I ask how they are providing for the students who lack internet at home, the response was that these students would have to work online during a study period or after school in the school computer lab.
Consider just how unfair it would be if a richer student got to take his or her books and study materials home after school but a poor student could not? Yet this switch to electronics does exactly that. The rich kid gets the advantage of homework and help from parents 24/7 while the poor kid is restricted to gaps in school time.
What really bites is that Kansas parents pay a book rental fee but now their child is not getting what
they paid for. Such educational malpractice begs for a lawsuit; yet poor people are the least likely to complain.
Secretary Duncan wants electronic textbooks because Korea and Finland have decided to move that direction. But neither country has the poverty found in the U.S.; and both are committed to put the electronics into every student’s hands and at home. And they have zero proof that this will benefit students.
But some Kansas administrators adopted their electronic textbook policy well before Duncan’s proclamation last week. They live in a world that substitutes the images of progress for the substance. Many have been spending big bucks for electronic “whiteboards” for every classroom whether the teacher asked for it or not.
Unfortunately, internet access is not equal to printed texts and does not improve test scores. In a June 18, 2010 study of 150,000 5th-to-8th-grade students by researchers at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, home computer use was linked with lower student test scores and the problem was worse for low-income students.
In many Kansas communities, citizens have organized to provide “backpack food” to send home with poor students who do not get enough to eat.
They should not have to also raise funds to send students home with a real textbook.