Silence of the Left

The topic du jour on the left these days is inequality. But why does the left care about inequality? Do they really want to lift those at the bottom of the income ladder? Or are they just looking for one more reason to increase the power of government?

If you care about those at the bottom then you are wasting your time and everyone else’s time unless you focus on one and only one phenomenon: the inequality of educational opportunity. Poor kids are almost always enrolled in bad schools. Rich kids are almost always in good schools.

So what does the left have to say about the public school system? Almost nothing. Nothing? That’s right. Nothing. I can’t remember ever seeing an editorial by Paul Krugman on how to reform the public schools. So I Googled to see if I have missed something. The only thing I found was a negative post about vouchers. And Krugman is not alone.

You almost never see anything written by left-of-center folks on reforming the public schools. And I have noticed on TV talk shows that it’s almost impossible to get liberals to agree to the most modest of all reform ideas: getting rid of bad teachers and making sure we keep the good ones.

What did you learn in school?



Here is the uncomfortable reality:

  1. Our system of public education is one of the most regressive features of American society.
  2. There is almost nothing we could do that would be more impactful in reducing inequality of educational opportunity and inequality overall than to do what Sweden has done: give every child a voucher and let them select a school of choice.
  3. Yet on the left there is almost uniform resistance to this idea or any other idea that challenges the power of the teachers unions.

Over and over again, liberal pundits come up with objections to the idea of school choice. What they completely ignore is that we already have a system of school choice.

How school choice currently works. The vast majority of parents are already participating in a system of school choice. For example, there are 79 school districts within a 50-mile radius of downtown Dallas. Assuming each district has at least two campuses at each grade level, a typical family has a choice of about 158 public schools — provided the parents can afford to buy a house in any neighborhood and are willing to drive a considerable distance to work.

How well does this system work? Better than you might think. A study by researchers at Southern Methodist University and the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank found that North Dallas houses near higher-ranking elementary schools sold for about 20 percent more than houses near lower-ranking schools. The authors conclude that the market for education works surprisingly well. Parents can discern quality and the market charges a premium for it.

This conclusion is supported by an informal survey conducted by Dallas attorney H. Martin Gibson of housing prices in Highland Park — a wealthy Dallas suburb. Although most Highland Park homes are inside the Highland Park Independent School District (HPISD), a few are in the Dallas Independent School District (DISD). Gibson found that, all else equal, homes on the HPISD side of the street sell for 24 percent more than those on the DISD side. This implies that many Highland Park homeowners are paying about $72,000 just for the right to send their children to Highland Park schools.

More recently, the Brookings Institution investigated the same phenomena nationwide:

  • Across the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school.
  • This housing cost gap reflects that home values are $205,000 higher on average in the neighborhoods of high-scoring versus low-scoring schools. Near high-scoring schools, typical homes have 1.5 additional rooms and the share of housing units that are rented is roughly 30 percentage points lower than in neighborhoods near low-scoring schools.

If the system works well for those who have money, how does it work for those who don’t? What happens to families who cannot afford to buy a house in an expensive neighborhood? Unfortunately, they’re out of luck. Since the current choice system in Dallas and across the country rations educational opportunity through the housing market, it’s almost inevitable that the children of low-income families will end up in schools no one else wants to attend. These are the schools with the worst teachers, the worst principals and the lowest test scores.

A compounding factor is that parents who can afford more expensive homes are much more adept at dealing with public sector bureaucracies. If a bad teacher or principal is identified at a school in a wealthy neighborhood, parents typically will complain until that person is transferred to another school. Then the parents at the next school will likely complain. This transfer process will continue until the worst teachers and worst principals wind up at schools where either the parents don’t complain or nothing happens if they do. These invariably are schools in low-income neighborhoods.

Of course, it is possible to turn a truly bad school into a good one through some Herculean effort. But if the effort was successful and perceived to be permanent, “gentrification” would occur. Middle-income families would move into the neighborhood and bid up housing prices. Low-income residents would be priced out of the market and would have to move somewhere else. It is no accident that the worst schools are consistently found in low-income neighborhoods that lie predominantly in urban areas. Indeed, it could not be otherwise.

How liberals view school choice. There have always been some on the left who want to liberate poor children from bad schools. But, sad to say, they are in a distinct minority. Here is Krugman on school choice:

… [P]roposals for school vouchers should be critiqued not only on educational or cost-efficiency grounds but also because they raise the risk of a collapse in the political support for public education. (If upper-middle-class families are allowed to “top up” their vouchers with their own money, they will soon realize that it is in their interest to cut the size of the vouchers as much as possible). And-dare we say it? We should in general oppose privatization plans if they are likely to destroy public sector unions. After all, people on the right tend to favor privatization for exactly the same reason.

And what exactly would be wrong if the teachers unions went away? Clearly they view the schools as a jobs program far more than a way of lifting children out of poverty. What the teachers unions do systematically is support big government. They want higher taxes and more government spending. Even if you thought that these were good things, is it worth it to sacrifice millions of poor children in the process? The left apparently thinks so.

Postscript: Newly elected New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio appeared on Morning Joe the other day to explain why he wants to close some of the city’s best charter schools. Andrew J. Rotherham and Richard Whitmire at Slate give the background:

Among the 870 Success Academy seats [the mayor] blocked was a modest 194-student expansion for Success Academy students in Harlem to move into a new middle school. That triggered days of searing press coverage pointing out that those 194 students, all low-income minorities, were coming from a school, Success Academy 4, that killed it on the new state test scores, with 80 percent of the students passing the math test, and 59 percent the English test. The co-located middle school the mayor is protecting and where many of those 194 charter students would end up: P.S. 149, where 5 percent of students passed the math test, and 11 percent the English test.

While the other guests rightly pounded on the mayor and expressed outrage, economist Jeffrey Sachs sat by and said nothing. Everyone has a right to be silent. But not if you intend to turn around and tell us how important it is to do something about inequality.

Comments (29)

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  1. Perry says:

    “Yet on the left there is almost uniform resistance to this idea or any other idea that challenges the power of the teachers unions.”

    Yep, that’s pretty much the long and short of it.

    • Erik says:

      Unfortunately, you must support the Teachers Union or the GOP will privatize education as they have been trying for years, first with vouchers and now charter schools.

      If you stop attacking tenure which is there to protect teachers from political winds, you will see improvements through positive engagement.

  2. Ken says:

    Excellent post. One of your best.

  3. Thomas says:

    “…the inequality of educational opportunity. Poor kids are almost always enrolled in bad schools. Rich kids are almost always in good schools.”

    Improvement in education would help reduce inequality greatly. The poor kids enrolled in bad schools are also less likely to carry over what they learned over to the next school year. The disparity in income can be reduced just through better and fair education.

    • Andrew says:

      This was also explained in Freakonomics that this would also help improve advancement and reduce the disparity among different races. Improvement in test scores and education could single handedly race inequality as well.

  4. Matthew says:

    “…a typical family has a choice of about 158 public schools — provided the parents can afford to buy a house in any neighborhood”

    Parents have school choice now, except those who can’t afford it. Low income families have virtually no school choice.

  5. Buddy says:

    “Our system of public education is one of the most regressive features of American society.”

    You can say that again. The current public school system is failing our children.

  6. Breck says:

    I think most of what you said here is accurate, but you still seem to accept the one liberal myth that is most damaging. This is that all children can obtain a very high level of academic achievement if only we work hard enough, provide them with energetic, dedicated teachers, and teach in entertaining and creative ways. As Charles Murray observes in his book “Real Education,” half of our children are below average (as if this fact were a big secret.) This means that all but the top 20% or so are incapable of doing college level academic work, according to Murray. In turn, this implies that we should be providing vocational training rather than college prep for the majority of secondary students. Continuing to define successful schools as those which prepare all students for college is to guarantee the failure of most, with or without vouchers, teachers unions or all the rest.

    • Wanda J. Jones says:

      You are completely right on this. Half of people have an IQ under 100! The problem is compounded if the parents do not read and do not read to their children. Signs of land–the fascination with computer games. If kids are motivated to learn the computer for whatever reason, a world of education opportunities opens up on the net, and with the harmonic convergence of computers and TV, there are even more opportunities to learn. But the problem of teachers’ unions is a social monster that keeps education in the 18th century. I’m struck by the support for dysfunctional education sector, and its dedication to calling the healthcare system broken and in need of a “fix.” Is this just stupidity, politics or laziness? Oh, I get it.

      Wanda J. Jones
      San Francisco

  7. Don McCanne says:

    Is it the silence of the left or the deafness of the right?

  8. Blake Woodard says:

    John –

    I oppose any voucher system. The liberals will turn it into the greatest entitlement program of all time. I sometimes wonder why I work 70 hour weeks. The government regulates me to death, creating incredible friction that makes it hard to earn money. Then they tax me at 50+ (considering all jurisdictions). And then they give everything free or deeply discounted (education, healthcare, food, housing, transportation, cell phones, healthcare) to those who don’t work at all. What’s the point?

  9. Paul Nelson says:

    Easily, your best effort…ever! The future of our nation’s autonomy within the world-wide community will likely hinge on this single issue.

  10. James M. says:

    “Over and over again, liberal pundits come up with objections to the idea of school choice.”

    Which is ridiculous. Choice is what people want and choice helps different sectors thrive.

  11. charlie bond says:

    Hi John,
    In all of these great policy issues–health care, education, etc.–we must unite as a country and act like statesmen. Just as disease and injury do not check party affiliation before striking, neither does fate check to see what parents or neighborhood it is going to choose for a child. In these issues, regardless of political label, we want to do the best for people, especially for children, the ill, the aged and the injured.
    Your ideas are consistently strong and thought-provoking. I challenge you, however, to turn your prodigious power to uniting people around solutions. Leave the divisive rhetoric to the screamers on the television. We have so little time to address these problems before they overwhelm us as a country, we must use all our effort to draw people together to achieve the common good.
    Sincerely and with utmost respect,
    Charlie Bond

  12. Roger Waters says:

    The entire problem, as you note, boils down to two words: teacher unions (along with their fear mongered self-preservation, meta-functions). The bright lining on the horizon (IMHO, and I am no education expert, nor am I an education policy wonk or community organizer – although I do aspire to organize my community to petition for better and real irish beer at the city St. Patrick’s day celebration) is the internet and massively open online courses (MOOC), the fact that many teachers are scrambling to use these points to both the quality of these offerings and the irrelevance and inabilities of local teachers. It shall be interesting to see how these new disruptive forms of education change the organized yet disfunctional unions?

  13. G. King says:

    Actually that is in accord with how economics works. Those who pay more for housing gain more on education. The classmates of their children are basically from wealthy families that are very important for local economics. Such connections (social network) provide unique prospective value that most people value a lot.

  14. Blake R says:

    It is interesting the fact that the left is not talking about an education reform. Especially considering that traditionally the left have focused on education as the way to reform the system. I agree with you, the main source of inequality in this country is the education system. It determines the future of the individual since the beginning. If the left worries about the inequality they should focus on changing the disparity that is created with our current system.

  15. Linda Gorman says:

    To expand John’s comments, here’s what we’re doing in Colorado to make sure that the left can’t ignore the lousy education delivered by public schools that are free from the competitive pressure provided by school choice. Not that the local left is helping, of course.

    The state has open enrollment. This means that if there is room after the people from the geographic area served by a school has enrolled, you can enroll your child in any regular school in the state regardless of your residence. The problem, of course, is that you have to be relatively well off to provide the transportation, and the good schools have waiting lists.

    The state has a good charter school law. Parents can get together, jump through various hoops, and found a charter school. It receives less state funding than the regular public schools but in return can operate free of the more oppressive state and district rules. Charters are very popular.

    Colorado also has liberal homeschooling laws. Homeschoolers have multiple organizations to support them. There are so many that they run their own sports leagues and debate contests. Some public school districts support homeschoolers by letting students created a customized education by enroll in schools for some courses.

    Finally, consider what is going on in Douglas County, a school district south of Denver. Its school board recognizes that it is serving parents who know what they are doing. It is trying to turn the usual suburban schools into something that parents can tailor to meet their individual child’s educational needs.

    The county has a current population of about 300,000. It has grown rapidly, with a 62 percent population increase between 2000 and 2010. It has a median household income of roughly $100,000. It receives lower per pupil funding than Denver and other school districts with populations that are considered disadvantaged.

    Its public schools would be considered good according to the usual metrics. Graduation rates are good. Average district ACT score is 21.7 (Colorado high school juniors take the ACT), not the top for Colorado school districts, but near enough. It offers charter schools, magnet schools, high school at night, an alternative school, a cyber school, and provides services to homeschooling parents.

    The revolt against suburban school business as usual started when county residents realized that the current school board was resistant to charter schools.

    A reform-minded board majority was elected in 2008. It proposed a new program which would give parents 3/4 of public school per pupil funding that they could take to any participating private school. The private schools have to agree to the same evaluations as public charter schools. The left sued to block it. The district has won all of the appeals, next stop may be the Colorado Supreme Court.

    The district has new metrics for evaluating student progress and teacher quality along with an innovative pay-for-performance system. It let the collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union lapse.

    The reform minded majority was just re-elected in a closely fought, brutal, election that attracted large (for Colorado) amounts of outside funding. People who want better education for children will wish them well and pay attention to how well these reforms work going forward.

    • Erik says:

      How is privatizing schools going to help poor people who cannot access them?

      How will draining resources from the public schools poor children attend prevent further widening of the education gap.

      It may be nice not attending class with the “Other.” but you will go through life with the “Other” and we would be much better off as a nation if the “Other” was educated.

      • Linda Gorman says:

        Charters are public schools so there is no “draining of resources” involved except, perhaps, from the teachers’ unions.

        And poor people access them just fine when people who profess to be all about child welfare finally stop obstructing them.

        • Erik says:

          You know that is not accurate and I am surprised you wrote that sentiment.

          Charter Schools are public/private institutions that get to choose who will attend and wait list those they do not want.

          They also drain monetary and physical resources away from public schools in the form of per student, per day funds and classroom/playground space.

          Charter schools are profit making centers for those who own them primarily and education centers secondarily. It is also questionable whether they outperform public schools.

  16. Morris Bryant, MD says:

    While I agree that vouchers will help, it may not be in quite the way envisioned. Vouchers provide choice and require capable decision making to best take advantage. The capability to make good decisions is deeply impaired in may low income households because of the broken family unit. Unbroken family units will tend to make better life choices in aggregate. Hence they will tend to make value adding decisions that will benefit their children.
    There are certainly some unbroken and broken families in low income areas that will make good decisions. Vouchers may be one of those positive breaks in life to help them, over time, dig out. But, they are fewer.
    Families are also information systems and a broken family tends to have a broke information system. Its not education that will fix this. Fix the family and you will go a long way to fixing the education problem. Over time, those who are in the low end but able to make the correct choices and take advantage of the vouchers could prove themselves to be leaders in communities that desperately need positive direction.

    • Linda Gorman says:

      If what you say is true, why do so many low income households join charter school lotteries in low income areas and do whatever else they can to get their kids into the best schools that are available to them?

      And how did so many low income immigrants to America become so highly educated?

      The last thing a child from a chaotic household needs is a chaotic school.We don’t know how to fix the families, but we sure do have a whole bunch of examples of how to fix the schools. Provided, of course, the people in charge want to do so.

  17. Wanda J. Jones says:

    John, I agree with those who said this is an important issue and that this blog is excellent. I also agree with the point made by Charlie Bond that what’s needed at this point, in addition to clarification of the issue, is a way forward. Think tanks then to do just that, while the left produces “do tanks” like ACORN to further their own programs, on the ground, so to speak. There are enough charter schools, home schooling and on-line educational resources that there can be an organization to promote state-level policy change and help train parent groups in creating charter schools. Some new forms of grants seem to be in order.


    Wanda Jones
    San Francisco

  18. Peter N. Madras, M.D. says:


    Let me propose that there are two phenomena that need to be addressed, although they are not entirely separable: education, as you have stated, and drugs. This administration has sacrificed countless thousands of minority lives, and is throwing more away by taking the road of the Pied Piper when it comes to drugs.

  19. Mark Skousen says:

    Remember Ronald Reagan’s words, easily forgotten: “There is no left or right, only up or down.”

  20. Raymond Wooldridge says:


    This is really good stuff! Any chance it would play even better if we could couch it in some way other than left vs right?

  21. Ron says:

    John, great post. You did not even have to include the wealthy sending their kids to private schools as a part of the “school choice” that already occurs for wealthier families.

    In Georgia, individuals and companies can allocate a portion of their state income taxes ($7500 for a family??)to go to private school scholarships. The total state tax credit program is in excess of $50M. These funds can be used to support lower income families who want to send their children to private schools.