What Can Government Do To Promote Upward Mobility?
A recent provocative column by Matt Miller of the Washington Post takes the Republicans to task for exalting the ways in which all their stars arose from humble circumstances on the backs of labor from their parents. But the question he poses is, how is the classic American story of upward mobility to exist today when the overall economic situation is so grim and the willingness on the part of Republicans, and yes Democrats, to spend more money on education, and on educational equality, is at a low ebb. We have tapped out the system, and have nothing to show for the past investments in education.
What then should be done? The first point here is to understand that the stakes are very high. All the work on early childhood education shows that high levels of investment at a very young age yield the highest level of return. Getting students into this system therefore is critical. But where? The Miller column does not say a word about either unions or charter schools. My own sense is that in places like NYC, the strong union system for both administrators and principals is a huge impediment to the improvement of education, with its constant stress on strong tenure protection and suffocating work rules, which combine to hurt education. Charter schools, which are largely free of these constraints, have a huge pent up demand. However, the strong level of union opposition to charter schools has made it ever more difficult to open up new ones, which would put the public schools in a position where they would either have to improve their performance or find themselves out of clientele. Making the educational system competitive would not require the additional dollars that Miller calls for. It would only require that the dollars that are committed to public education be spent in ways that do not enrich teachers who are protected by state laws, but rather the pupils who could benefit by education and choice. These structural changes would outperform any effort to throw more money into the current system.
The second piece of the puzzle deals with the returns from education, which depend on marginal students being able to find a place in the workforce. Right now the protections that are afforded to workers under various labor laws do wonders for those who have already secured their places. But they shrink the overall size of the economy and thus reduce the opportunities at the bottom. For these purposes, it does not matter whether we focus on the minimum wage or overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, or the perceived costliness of the future health care forms under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which has yet to be implemented. The bottom line remains the same: the protections that are afforded to incumbents become barriers to entry for the most vulnerable of the population. Once they see that doors are closed to them, why work harder in school when there is no payoff at the end of the road?
Here again what is needed is not additional expenditures, but a removal of restrictions on gainful employment. These are not bromides. They offer the only path to success. The government cannot inspire parents to work hard for their children. But what it can do is pare down the size of its own apparatus so that parents themselves have a chance to increase incomes, which they can then use to advance the position of their children. The consequence of our current policies is a falling tide strands all ships. A combination of targeted reforms and general growth supply the answer that thus far seems to have eluded Democrats and Republicans alike.