The Political Economy of Education Equity


Andy Rotherham remarks: “I’ve gotten a slew of emails asking why I haven’t written anything about Sunday’s NYT mag piece by Paul Tough. Well, what is there to say? Most important education article written this year.” I wish he would say more — I thought the article raised more questions than it answered. In particular, Tough and his admirers mostly seem to read his conclusion as an optimistic one: here’s how to make school work for poor kids, while it actually makes me incredibly pessimistic.

Let’s take a look at Tough’s conclusion:

The evidence is now overwhelming that if you take an average low-income child and put him into an average American public school, he will almost certainly come out poorly educated. What the small but growing number of successful schools demonstrate is that the public-school system accomplishes that result because we have built it that way. We could also decide to create a different system, one that educates most (if not all) poor minority students to high levels of achievement. It is not yet entirely clear what that system might look like — it might include not only KIPP-like structures and practices but also high-quality early-childhood education, as well as incentives to bring the best teachers to the worst schools — but what is clear is that it is within reach.

Although the failure of No Child Left Behind now seems more likely than not, it is not too late for it to succeed. We know now, in a way that we did not when the law was passed, what it would take to make it work. And if the law does, in the end, fail — if in 2014 only 20 or 30 or 40 percent of the country’s poor and minority students are proficient, then we will need to accept that its failure was not an accident and was not inevitable, but was the outcome we chose.

This seems to me to involve assuming a can opener. Schools full of poor kids could do just as well as schools full of middle-class kids if they had more resources at their disposal than the middle-class schools had. But why would they have more resources? It’s hard to imagine suburban homeowners voting for a politician who promises to raise their taxes in order to pay their kids’ best teachers to go teach in inner city schools, thereby making it harder for their kids to get into selective colleges and reducing the value of the homes they own.

To really make this work, you’d need to totally change the way the American education system works and gets paid for.