Bill Tucker offers a juxtaposition:
…Neither Whitmire nor Rhee seems aware that social science research has demonstrated for many years that what families do, and the advantages or disadvantages that family income confers, have even more influence on academic performance than what teachers do. — Diane Ravitch
“The single best predictor of a student’s likelihood of default is the student’s own socioeconomic status.” — Career College Association (now Association of Private-Sector Colleges and Universities), arguing against accountability for for-profit colleges.
It’s useful to have these two points juxtaposed together, because it helps isolate what the controversy is actually about. When people look at the idea that for-profit colleges shouldn’t get taxpayer subsidies unless they can deliver demonstrable quality, a lot of folks on the right see that as an argument that’s “really” about undue suspicion of the private sector. And when people look at the idea that K-12 schools shouldn’t get taxpayer subsidies unless they can deliver demonstrable quality, a lot of folks on the left see that as an argument that’s “really” about undue suspicion of labor unions. But in both cases, the issue is “really” about getting value for our money. Why subsidize something that’s useless?
Only a fool would deny that socioeconomic status is an important determinant of educational outcomes, and that low-SES children have a lot of disadvantages in life. But the relevant issue here is whether or not provision of educational services is a promising way to help people overcome those disadvantages. If it is promising, then there’s a strong case for generous subsidies but the people paying the subsidies need to ask ourselves if the providers are actually delivering value. If it’s not promising, then we should stop providing the services and give the money to poor people. I think the debate over whether or not we’re over-investing in education and under-investing in food stamps and housing vouchers is worth having. But as best I can tell, nobody from the for-profit college lobby or the K-12 teachers lobby favors cutting education spending to boost SNAP. So we should stop raising this issue as a red herring. “It’s impossible for the sort of thing we’re doing to help poor people overcome their disadvantages in life” is an extremely strange argument for social service providers to be mounting, and I don’t think educators at any level actually believe it.