The Proven Way to Fight Income Inequality: Education

Progressives talk a lot about how to encourage economic mobility, but they are leaving big gaps in their education platforms.
Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

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.

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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