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To fix education, fix income inequality

January 26, 2014

Ted Kaufnan recently wrote a piece in the News Journal to the effect that increased investment in education now “will lay the groundwork for economic growth.” While investing in education is a good in its own right, if we don’t begin to reverse income inequality we will just be pouring money into a leaky bucket, and the money will be funneled upward and end up in the portfolios of the already wealthy. The best incentive to succeed in education is the promise of a good job, and right now that promise is shaky.

Senator Ted is probably the best we have ever sent to Washington. Too good perhaps. Too bad he couldn’t stay.

But when he says “The correlation between educational achievement and economic opportunity will grow even stronger in the years ahead,’” he is correct, but probably not in the way he intends.

Increased educational success will not necessarily lead to jobs. Our workforce is more educated than ever, but even as education levels increase, employment and real wages have been declining.

Look at it from the other end of the telescope: Increased economic opportunity will lead to greater educational success. That is, if we put economic policies in place for a more broadly shared prosperity, opportunities for education will also increase in a virtuous circle.

The key is reducing income inequality. We have become a rich country filled with poor people. When you are poor you have less opportunity for educational success.

This is now desperately obvious in Delaware, where the students with the most economic advantages have always gone to private schools but are now ending up in “high performing” economically segregated public charters. And those who are left behind economically are also left behind in education.

Addressing income inequality doesn’t mean everybody has to make the same amount. It just means that the extreme trend needs to begin to be reversed. People need jobs, and working people need to keep more of the profits they generate.

Kaufman says:

Let’s clear the air about income inequality. I’m not arguing, nor are any people I take seriously, that we should try to end it. There has always been income inequality, and always will be in a capitalist society. That’s not the reason so many have lost faith in the American Dream.

They don’t mind inequality as long as they feel there is equal opportunity. When they don’t believe that, when they feel the deck is stacked against them and in favor of the very rich, we lose something that has been perhaps the most vital part of the American experience.

The best incentive to succeed in education is the promise of a good job. When that promise is restored, parents and students will demand more of their educators, and will be willing to fund their demands.

In Delaware, NCC especially, we used to enjoy a broad prosperity with only pockets of poverty (most notably the city of Wilmington). But now the poverty is county-wide.

So Senator Ted is correct about the correlation, but he has cause and effect reversed. When we have economic policies that reduce income inequality and restore our broad middle-class prosperity, then we will begin to enjoy educational success for all students, not just the segregated charters and private schools.

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