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.
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.