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Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.

Brazil's 'educational apartheid' cements inequality early in life

Brazilian government initiatives now bring schooling to the masses, but the country's deep racial divide has only been reinforced.

Comparing the Divide: Education lies at the heart of inequality — economic and racial — in America and around the world. As the US approaches Martin Luther King Day, two cities still struggling to learn that lesson are Rio de Janeiro and Selma, Alabama. These two cities, which share a history of both economic and racial inequality, also share a close ranking for economic inequality on the Gini Index: 0.523 (Selma) and 0.519 (Brazil).

RIO DE JANEIRO — One of Rio de Janeiro’s finest private schools, the Colegio Teresiano is surrounded by tropical rainforest. Brazilian poetry and novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez fill the library. Florid works of naïve art decorate the hallways.

This resplendent setting provides an intellectual jump start for children of middle and upper-class families who can afford the $700-a-month tuition. 2011 World Bank stats puts annual per capita GDP in Brazil at $11,640, or $970 per month. That’s why it’s jarring to find an 11-year-old slum-dweller wearing the Teresiano’s blue-and-white uniform.

The student, fifth-grader Lucas Junior, hails from Rocinha, a mountaintop ghetto, or “favela,” whose red-brick shacks are visible from the Teresiano school’s top-floor balcony and where many people get by on a few dollars a day. In Rocinha, public schools are overcrowded and lessons are sometimes interrupted by drug shootouts. But Lucas sidestepped that dead-end scenario because his father works at the Teresiano as a hall monitor and family scholarships are an employee benefit.

“My son is learning things here that kids don’t learn until two years later in public school,” said Adilson Junior, 34, while taking a break in the school snack bar. “Lucas has a golden opportunity. But all children should have this opportunity and an equal shot at success.”

“Lucas has a golden opportunity. But all children should have this opportunity and an equal shot at success.”
~Adilson Junior

An equal shot. That was the holy grail for 19th century US school reformer Horace Mann, who promoted equality in schools as the key to upward mobility for the lower rungs of society. One of the earliest advocates of universal public education, Mann lobbied for public schools to bring children of all social classes together in order to give them a common learning experience.

But in Brazil, a rising global power which sees itself as a peer of the United States, many experts say the two-tiered education system accentuates the country’s huge gap between rich and poor. Despite recent improvements, in 2009 Brazil scored 0.557 in the Gini Index, which placed it as the world’s tenth most unequal nation. In 2012, the Gini coefficient for Brazil was 0.519, according to the CIA World Factbook.

This inequality — whether in schools or in economic opportunity — also cuts along a sharp racial divide. Brazil has a brutal history of slavery, was late in accepting the abolition movement, then did little to help freed slaves — and it shows. Today, Brazilians who identify themselves as black or brown represent slightly more than 50 percent of the population, and their income level is half that of whites, according to IPEA, a government-linked think tank.

Given this racial divide, it is revealing that the Gini coefficient for the country of Brazil mirrors that of Selma, Alabama, a city that became synonymous with the struggle for civil rights and voting rights in America. To some degree, this movement was a reaction to a profoundly racist and unfair system of schooling, known as “separate but equal,” which the US Supreme Court finally overturned in the historic 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

Education has been at the heart of rising inequality — racial and economic — in America and around the world.

Brazil's class divisions start hardening around the age of five. That’s because, depending on their economic status, Brazilian children are either funneled into rundown public schools that often prep them for mediocrity, or into high-quality private institutions that nurture great expectations and lay the groundwork for achievement.

“This amounts to educational apartheid,” Claudia Costin, the education secretary for the city of Rio de Janeiro, told GlobalPost.

Education and economic success are closely linked. Costin cited studies indicating that each additional year of schooling can provide an income boost of about 15 percent.

But even though more children from the Brazilian underclass are now attending public schools, second-rate teachers, badly equipped buildings, short school days, and lack of