Ezra Klein, commenting on my recent WSJ piece about the cultural roots of economic inequality, criticizes my call for increased competition in schooling as “an astonishingly narrow and inadequate solution.” I agree!
The point of my op-ed was to identify a problem: the culture of economic underperformance. I did feel obliged to say something about what ought to be done, but I didn’t offer much. First, I said upfront that there’s no silver bullet. Then I said:
But the public institutions most directly responsible for human capital formation are the nation’s schools, and it seems beyond serious dispute that in many cases they are failing to discharge their responsibilities adequately. Those interested in reducing meaningful economic inequality would thus be well advised to focus on education reform. And forget about adding new layers of bureaucracy and top-down controls. Real improvements will come from challenging the moribund state-school monopoly with greater competition.
I stand by all that, unsurprisingly, but I’ll readily concede that even the best possible (by my lights) educational reform would have only a modest impact.
Ezra writes that “all evidence suggests [school reform] will be far less effective than more serious interventions like universal preschool.” And I think that, in theory at least, Ezra has a valid point: if you’re trying to counteract the effects of a dysfunctional or at least maladapted culture in the home, you’ll have much more leverage if you reach kids in the first years of life.
It’s the dicey little trip from theory to practice that I have problems with. To put the matter plainly: how can anyone seriously believe that the people who brought us the D.C. public schools are going to do better if we give them preschools as well?
Meanwhile, Ezra is too quick to write off K-12 as irrelevant. After all, the public schools have long been touted as the centerpiece of government efforts to provide something like equality of opportunity — i.e., to offer some compensation for the kids who didn’t win the parent lottery. If, in fact, schools don’t matter, why do we spend so much tax money paying for them? If, on the other hand, government support for K-12 does do something to mitigate the inequality in investment in childrens’ human capital, shouldn’t we ensure that the public investment being made is as effective as possible?