To fully understand the concept of the education debt, it’s worth exploring the analogy in some depth. Imagine that a person has been unjustly fired from her job, resulting in a year of lost income. To get by, she uses a credit card with a relatively high interest rate to pay her bills.
Twelve months later, after a change in management, she is brought back to her job at her previous salary—erasing any outward signs of injustice. But she has new bills to pay; by the time she is reinstated in her position, she has run up $30,000 in debt. If her interest rate is 20 percent annually, she’ll owe her credit card company $6,000 each year in interest.
How long will this person be making this $6,000 annual interest payment? Potentially forever, if she doesn’t earn enough to pay off the original balance of $30,000. Each monthly paycheck will have $500 taken out of it to cover the interest she owes, leaving her with significantly less spending power than her peers with similar salaries. Instead of spending that monthly sum on a mortgage or socking it away for retirement, she’ll be mailing it off in interest payments. Her life may have gone back to “normal,” but the consequences of her initial firing will follow her for years to come.
Black and Latino students, on average, perform below their white counterparts academically for many reasons. School curricula and norms are often shaped by white, middle-class values. Students of color are often marginalized, whether because they’re in segregated schools or racially isolated within otherwise diverse schools. Standardized testing—the primary mechanism for measuring student achievement—fails to measure particular kinds of knowledge. Perhaps most powerful, however, is the role played by historical injustice. The education debt drags on achievement in the present, and when that historical debt is combined with persistent economic and sociopolitical inequality, talk of producing equal educational outcomes with equal resources begins to sound untethered to reality.
Literacy is a useful example for thinking through the education debt. Before a student ever sets foot in school, he or she is learning from parents and caretakers—absorbing language, identifying letters, developing phonemic awareness, and building habits around reading. Literacy, of course, isn’t a heritable trait, the way that eye color is. But, because so much about learning depends on the adults in a child’s life, there is a great deal that gets passed down across generations. Which children are likely to be read to the most? Which children are most likely to have books in the home? Which are most likely to be encouraged to try sounding out words? As research indicates, parents are the key variable in all of these scenarios.
As a consequence, populations historically denied equal access, or any access at all, to education will carry that past forward. Thus, even if these people’s children were to receive equal educational opportunities in the present, they are less likely to reap an equal benefit.