Examining educational inequities in Selma and Rio


A view of Rocinha, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, from Adilson Mendes Junior's house balcony, on January 14, 2013.


Marizilda Cruppe

It was Horace Mann who said, “Education is the great equalizer.”

But what the 19th century education reformer and abolitionist didn’t realize, perhaps, is that these days, education reflects the rise in global economic inequality.

In our continuing series titled "The Great Divide: global income inequality and its cost," we are turning the lens today on inequality – racial and economic – in two cities: Selma, Alabama and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

On this weekend of remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it seems particularly fitting to compare Selma and Rio, which share a similar history of struggles with slavery and racism, and the deep economic inequality left in their wake.

And, it turns out, they share something else. They both have a Gini coefficient of approximately 0.52. A measure of inequality, the Gini coefficient provides the basis for our Special Report’s comparison of the rich-poor divide in American metropolitan areas to that of other countries. The distance between rich and poor in Selma and Brazil, for example, is comparable. For more details, see our methodology. 

GlobalPost dispatched reporting teams to both cities to study the distance between the rich and poor and explore how people on both sides of the divide feel about rising inequality and its cost.  

Our correspondents for these stories, John Otis in Brazil and Elizabeth Tuttle in Alabama, successfully captured the ‘ground truth’ of both cities. These two writers were accompanied by award winning photographers: Chris Morris of VII Photo Agency in Selma, and Marizilda Cruppe in Rio.

The two teams explored two fundamentally divided education systems and the ways in which those systems perpetuate economic inequality. Their reporting revealed that economic and educational inequality in these cities mirror one another on more than just a statistical level.

Elite private schools offer a fast-track to success for those wealthy enough to afford them. Meanwhile, a chronically underfunded public education system fails to provide students with a competitive education. In both Rio and Selma, economic status still largely determines access to a quality education. Race plays a fundamental role in these divides, as both cities grapple with the continued implications of slavery, segregation and discrimination.

With nearly 6.5 million residents and counting, Rio dwarfs Selma, a shrinking city of 20,000. In many respects, their difference in demographic scale and geographic scope render the two cities beyond compare. But in other ways, the comparisons are productive.

In both places, there is consensus that education holds the key to greater equality, as well as a marked effort to do something about it. Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Selma in 2010 and introduced a campaign to bolster educational equality nationwide. National stimulus funding paid for Selma High’s reconstruction this past year. And the past two presidential administrations in Brazil have sought to bring education to the masses in Rio.

But for both cities, the hard part has been making these efforts add up to meaningful change in the quality of public education. Upward mobility remains a distant improbability, and while the poor’s access to education has improved, the quality of that education remains exponentially lower than that of the wealthy.

President Obama has called excellent education “the best anti-poverty solution around.”

As Elizabeth Tuttle observed, Obama shares this viewpoint with a legendary Brazilian education reformist named Paulo Freire, who authored a globally recognized book on the subject titled Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In his work, Freire argues that nothing perpetuates cycles of poverty and oppression as intensely as an inadequate education.

Freire, a theorist focused on Latin America, might be surprised to see the applicability of his assessment to Selma, Alabama.

Horace Mann, on the other hand, would be profoundly disappointed.