Progressives Flunking Income Inequality Test

Education reform is critical to closing the income gap, but it’s not on the president’s agenda.

Obama and de Blasio on the campaign trail
National Journal
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Josh Kraushaar
Jan. 7, 2014, midnight

For pro­gress­ives, the buzzy phrase of the mo­ment is in­come in­equal­ity. Pres­id­ent Obama plans to make it the fo­cus of his up­com­ing State of the Uni­on ad­dress after ser­mon­iz­ing about the is­sue in Decem­ber. New York City May­or Bill de Bla­sio made it the center­piece of his cam­paign and the theme of his in­aug­ur­a­tion ce­re­mony. Fresh­man Mas­sachu­setts Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren gained na­tion­al celebrity be­cause of her out­spoken cri­ti­cism of moneyed in­terests.

But as these politi­cians are in­vok­ing the is­sue for polit­ic­al gain, they’re avoid­ing one pre­scrip­tion that has proven to be a time-tested path to eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity — in­creas­ing ac­cess to qual­ity edu­ca­tion. When pro­gress­ives dis­cuss edu­ca­tion, it fre­quently leads to the de­mand part of the equa­tion. De Bla­sio pro­posed of­fer­ing uni­ver­sal pre-K and after-school to city res­id­ents, while Obama has made it easi­er for stu­dents to ob­tain grants and loans to tackle the skyrock­et­ing cost of a col­lege edu­ca­tion.

Left un­men­tioned are the ef­forts on the sup­ply side — ex­pand­ing school choice, im­prov­ing teach­er qual­ity, and strength­en­ing cur­riculum. In most poor, city neigh­bor­hoods, stu­dents are locked in­to fail­ing schools, with few op­tions for par­ents to turn to. Uni­ons are in­ves­ted in pro­tect­ing an edu­ca­tion­al mono­poly, fear­ing that in­creased com­pet­i­tion could drag down salar­ies and threaten em­ploy­ment for less-than-qual­i­fied teach­ers. At the col­lege level, one ma­jor cul­prit for rising tu­ition is that gov­ern­ment is ag­gress­ively sub­sid­iz­ing tu­ition costs — spur­ring in­fla­tion — without de­mand­ing ac­count­ab­il­ity from the uni­versit­ies be­ne­fit­ing. As the bar to at­tend­ing a four-year col­lege has been lowered, few­er stu­dents are gradu­at­ing and more are ex­it­ing with calam­it­ous debt, de­gree or no de­gree.

The vic­tims of this bubble are the stu­dents. Politi­cians be­ne­fit from feel-good rhet­or­ic, ad­min­is­trat­ors see a steady flow of money filling their cof­fers, and teach­ers can rest as­sured their jobs are pro­tec­ted re­gard­less of their abil­it­ies in the classroom. All the pre-K and low-in­terest tu­ition loans in the world won’t mat­ter if the edu­ca­tion be­ing provided is sub­stand­ard.

Yet, those rail­ing against eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity are do­ing very little to of­fer an edu­ca­tion­al path­way for chil­dren to rise out of poverty. De Bla­sio has de­clared war against charter schools in New York City, pro­pos­ing to stunt their growth in the city by threat­en­ing to stop of­fer­ing them free rent. More brazenly, the Obama Justice De­part­ment filed a law­suit against a Louisi­ana pro­gram de­signed to al­low poor stu­dents to pick al­tern­at­ives to their fail­ing pub­lic schools. It’s on par with the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hos­til­ity to school choice: One of the first moves the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion made was try­ing to shut down the pop­u­lar D.C. Op­por­tun­ity Schol­ar­ship Pro­gram, provid­ing vouch­ers to city stu­dents to at­tend private schools.

Last April, my col­league Adam Kush­ner doc­u­mented the re­mark­able turn­around New Or­leans pub­lic schools are ex­per­i­en­cing, thanks to a wave of edu­ca­tion­al re­forms in­tro­duced in the wake of Hur­ricane Kat­rina. The city laid off most of its pub­lic school teach­ing work­force, lib­er­ally is­sued charter school li­censes, and de­man­ded ac­count­ab­il­ity from its stu­dents. In a sys­tem that’s 95 per­cent black and with 92 per­cent of stu­dents get­ting free or re­duced lunches, the passing rate on state tests nearly doubled and the gradu­ation rate is now high­er than the na­tion­al av­er­age.

Such re­forms aren’t a pan­acea for the nu­mer­ous chal­lenges fa­cing im­pov­er­ished Amer­ic­ans. As Kush­ner wrote, the New Or­leans school sys­tem has gone from a “state of crisis to a state of me­diocrity, which counts as a mir­acle here.” For every suc­cess­ful KIPP col­lege-prep charter school in the city, there’s an­oth­er charter school that’s flail­ing down the road. But the suc­cesses clearly demon­strate a path­way for suc­cess — one that holds a much bet­ter track re­cord than simply spend­ing more money without set­ting ne­ces­sary bench­marks.

Des­pite de Bla­sio’s hos­til­ity to edu­ca­tion re­form, it has be­come something of a ne­ces­sity for Demo­crat­ic may­ors across the coun­try. Many cit­ies, like Wash­ing­ton, are ex­per­i­en­cing an eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al renais­sance thanks to an in­flux of young pro­fes­sion­als eager to tap in­to their vi­brant en­vir­on­ment. But without an ad­equate pub­lic school sys­tem, many fam­il­ies will move out when they have school-age kids. Many of the party’s lead­ing may­ors, from Chica­go’s Rahm Emanuel to Mi­chael Nut­ter in Phil­adelphia, have been charter-school boost­ers. Former Ne­wark May­or Cory Book­er, now New Jer­sey’s ju­ni­or sen­at­or, has even backed vouch­ers for private and pa­ro­chi­al edu­ca­tion.

It’s telling that the first big pitch from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and down-bal­lot Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates in 2014 is a push for rais­ing the min­im­um wage — an is­sue that’s fam­ous for its polit­ic­al value but of­fers little in the way of eco­nom­ic be­ne­fit. (Two ex­perts on the sub­ject ar­gue it helps low-skilled work­ers who keep their jobs at the ex­pense of oth­ers look­ing for work.) By con­trast, edu­ca­tion re­form is one of the rare is­sues that could unite a cross-sec­tion of Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats. It would al­low the pres­id­ent to build a bi­par­tis­an al­li­ance while tack­ling his sig­na­ture pitch on in­come in­equal­ity.

In real­ity, the White House’s rhet­or­ic about in­come in­equal­ity is as much about polit­ics as policy. Obama un­veiled his first speech on the sub­ject dur­ing the 2012 cam­paign — long after the Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment sprang up on the left — as a way to hit Mitt Rom­ney for his plu­to­crat­ic back­ground. “The themes he laid out were tail­or-made for a cam­paign,” au­thors Mark Halper­in and John Heile­mann wrote in their cam­paign opus Double Down. In­deed, Obama rarely pro­motes his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Race to the Top ini­ti­at­ive in­centiv­iz­ing states to raise edu­ca­tion­al stand­ards — he de­voted just one sen­tence to it in his in­come in­equal­ity speech — be­cause the pro­gram irks the party’s teach­ers-uni­on al­lies.

The tough­er chal­lenge is to ad­vance policies that ad­dress a ma­jor reas­on be­hind the grow­ing edu­ca­tion­al gap — the fact that poorer chil­dren aren’t af­forded the same edu­ca­tion­al op­por­tun­it­ies as wealth­i­er ones. There’s a path to clos­ing the gap, fo­cused more on in­creas­ing op­por­tun­ity than equal­iz­ing out­comes. But it means the pres­id­ent and his pro­gress­ive al­lies will have to make de­cisions to move bey­ond speeches and the min­im­um wage.


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