Surprise Advice from Two Left-Liberals: Give Up on Schools as Solution to Inequality

Conservatives might want to pay attention, too

Declaration of Independence, with "All men are created equal" text highlighted

In a New York Times op-ed, Jennifer C. Berkshire and Jack Schneider argue that Democrats should give up on the idea of public education as a solution to inequality.

The core of their argument is here: “schools can’t level a playing field marred by racial inequality and increasingly sharp class distinctions; to pretend otherwise is both bad policy and bad politics. Moreover, the idea that schools alone can foster equal opportunity is a dangerous form of magical thinking that not only justifies existing inequality but also exacerbates our political differences by pitting the winners in our economy against the losers.”

Further: “Schools may not be able to solve inequality. But they can give young people a common set of social and civic values.”

This is fascinating stuff, but it’s also a bit of a straw man. Hardly anyone claims “schools alone can foster equal opportunity.” But good schools do help accelerate upward mobility and expand opportunity. That’s valuable even if it falls short of enabling the egalitarian utopia of sky-high tax rates combined with redistribution and racial reparations that is often the non-education-based solution offered up by levellers.

Jennifer C. Berkshire

I don’t often agree with Berkshire and Schneider, who, as you may have figured out by now, are far to my left. I don’t share their concern for the Democratic Party’s win-loss ratio or their apparent worry that too much success on the education front would somehow take pressure off the rest of their economic justice agenda. I do, though, think they are onto something when they caution against the claim that education can “solve inequality.” Berkshire, a frequent contributor to the Nation, and Schneider, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, are writing for an intended audience of liberal Democrats. But conservative-leaning education reformers might also benefit from this insight. Conservatives and centrists, too, are quick to offer up school vouchers, charter schools, or merit pay and test-based accountability as a prescription to address inequality.

What’s wrong with that approach? It buys into the left-wing assumption that inequality is a big problem to be solved, rather than just the way things are.

Jack Schneider

This is tricky stuff, because it goes to basic American ideas—“all men are created equal” is there in the Declaration of Independence under self-evident truths. But the sense in which the founders meant equality was God-given equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That is not the same as equal bank account balances, annual earnings, or standardized test scores. Differences in such outcomes are the inevitable consequence of variation in individual talents, choices, and luck. Aiming to eliminate such differences is a fool’s errand—impossible, and also self-defeating because of the unintended consequences and the corrosive effects on incentives.

Conservatives would be smart to talk about education as a way to combat poverty, expand opportunity, increase prosperity, and improve upward mobility. But “inequality” is a trap.

Injustice is worth talking about. It’s unjust, scandalous even, that some urban public schools are unsafe and pass along children who are illiterate and innumerate, while schools serving wealthier or more white families in the suburbs offer safer learning environments and produce better educational results. But the scandal is not that some kids are in better schools; the scandal is that some schools are terrible.

It’s not the “gap” that’s the problem, it’s the absolute conditions in the bad schools. Unless conservatives are clear about that, the temptation will be precisely as Berkshire and Schneider predict, to worsen “our political differences by pitting the winners in our economy against the losers.” It’s easy, in other words, to solve the “gap” by destroying the better public schools so everything is equally bad. The dreaded “inequality” is eliminated, but no one’s education has been improved. So when Berkshire and Schneider warn Democrats against pitching education as a solution to inequality, it’s a message on which conservatives might profitably eavesdrop.

Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.

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