Government is often seen as society’s great equalizer. In education, nothing can be further from the truth. Indeed, it is almost impossible for one to imagine an aspect of society with greater inequities than those existing in the U.S. education system.
Income Inequality, Schools Edition
Since children from minority families live in lower-priced households disadvantaged children receive less educational resources each year. Since children are assigned to government-run schools based on their zip codes, and neighborhoods are racially and socioeconomically segregated, traditional public schools are also highly segregated. This is a huge problem given the scientific evidence suggesting that advantaged peer-groups and diversity improve student outcomes. And, of course, advantaged families can get their children into high quality K-12 public educational institutions through purchasing expensive households.
Knowing these facts, the severely large achievement gaps between black and white students should not surprise us.
Since children from minority families live in lower-priced households, and government-run schools are funded through property taxes, disadvantaged children receive less educational resources each year. And, again, given the growing body of strong evidence – published in outlets such as the Quarterly Journal of Economics – indicating that higher levels of educational spending lead to improved outcomes, we should not be surprised about the large black-white achievement gaps.
But what about the court decisions aiming to provide adequate educational resources for all children?
Good Teachers Get Promoted Away from Those Who Need Them Most
These still do not solve the problem. Why not?
Teacher quality varies from one individual to the next. And teachers are paid based on years of experience rather than actual levels of quality. The result? Since the best teachers are not rewarded with pay, they are rewarded with an easier job. The highest quality teachers move to the schools with advantaged students that are relatively easy to educate. Unfortunately, this means that the least advantaged students are stuck with the worst teachers.
Clearly, this only works to exacerbate educational inequality.
One way to reverse this trend is to financially reward high-quality teachers for going to schools that serve disadvantaged groups. Another way would be to offer bonuses for teachers that improve student learning over time. However, sadly, both of these reforms would also likely fail to address the problem of inequity in the system of government-run schools. There are a couple of reasons for this:
In the current system, experts would need to come up with a measure of teacher quality. The measure that is currently preferred by the state is standardized test scores, which are not strong predictors of long-term success. Rewarding teachers based on test scores could actually harm students that need character development. Disadvantaged children coming from single-parent families, or households that do not have the time to focus on behavioral development, would be harmed the most by such policies.
In order for such reforms to pass – and persist – constituents need political power. Low income and minority families are less likely to have political power necessary to implement targeted programs.
The best way to solve the educational inequality issue is to remove pieces of the education system from the democratic process. Over and over again, democracy has proven to work wonders for politically powerful groups, but not for minorities with less social capital.
The Separation of School and State
A universal private school choice program would benefit the least advantaged children more than anyone. As Milton Friedman and other education scholars – including myself – have pointed out, while governments may have an incentive to fund schools, it does not necessarily follow that governments should operate them.
A system of private school choice – in the form on tax-credit scholarships, school vouchers, or education savings accounts – would give low-income families an opportunity that is currently reserved for high-income families: the option to attend a private school of choice that works for their children.
And a universal private school choice program would benefit the least advantaged children more than anyone, as large amounts of educational demand are necessary to entice educational entrepreneurs to start high-quality schools. When new private schools open, competitive pressures drive tuition levels downward, and parental choices drive school quality levels upward.
Since disadvantaged families do not have substantial amounts of wealth, and rich families already have access to high-quality schools, universal private school choice programs would benefit the least advantaged students the most, and, in turn, would reverse black-white achievement gaps.