It's treated as a given in our political debate that offering a good education is the most important way we can reduce our large, and growing, inequality. Democrats, from President Obama to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi all say they will invest more in education. George W. Bush pledged to be the education president, and signed No Child Left Behind. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg says that failing to provide equal educational opportunities is a failure to achieve the goals of the civil-rights movement. Wherever you sit on the political spectrum you are supposed to think that education is the way that we mitigate the vastly unequal opportunities that children in America receive. It's intuitively appealing: we are compassionate, we give kids a chance, but then they better pull themselves up their boot straps!
But maybe we are asking too much of our schools? Growing up in New York City I saw a lot of public schools with bad outcomes because the student population was deeply disadvantaged. But the few wealthy kids who went to those very same public schools turned out just fine (not long ago I met one who went to Yale─I guess my parents wasted their money on sending me to private school, because Yale rejected me). Meanwhile, there are "good" public schools in wealthier neighborhoods where the main difference is just that the kids come to school with a full stomach and their parents read to them before they go to bed at night. Then there are all the private schools where some of the teachers are (unofficially) tenured and are pretty unimpressive, but the students tend to turn out (usually) OK. On the other hand, students who come to school poorly rested from a night in a homeless shelter, malnourished, or with untreated illnesses tend to do poorly. All the charter schools in the world can't solve those problems.
It has become the most overused shibboleth of many a moderate or "contrarian" liberal pundit to say that the left does poor kids a disservice by refusing to confront teachers unions and enact education reform. Case in point, Nicholas Kristof in today's New York Times. "The Democratic Party ... has admirably led the fight against poverty—except in the one way that would have the greatest impact. Good schools constitute a far more potent weapon against poverty than welfare, food stamps or housing subsidies." Ah yes, if I were a kid in East St. Louis I'd much rather be homeless but have teachers with merit pay than housing subsidies. I remember when I went to Cambodia—Kristof's favorite country—and all those kids with missing limbs were begging by the side of the road for an end to teacher tenure.
Call me a tool of the teacher's unions, or a glutton, but I'd take food stamps over "fewer certification requirements that limit entry to the teaching profession," if I were an impoverished student in Oakland or Appalachia. Anyway, good schools and food stamps don't need to be compared against one another. They are complementary goods, not competing ones.
Of course, if only two of New York's 80,000 teachers have been fired for incompetence alone in the last two years, as Kristof notes, that suggests there are a lot of incompetent teachers hanging on. Getting rid of them, as Kristof urges, would be a good thing, as would higher pay for teachers. So would something he doesn't mention: eliminating summer vacation, which exacerbates inequality because rich kids learn more over the summer while poor kids backslide. The reforms that Kristof advocates, with the exception of charter schools, which are not necessarily better than regular schools, are sensible. But better teachers for the six hours, 180 days per year, that students from poor families in poor communities spend in school is no panacea.
The single biggest thing we could do to decrease educational inequality doesn't even have to do with teachers: integration. Schools are largely segregated by race and income and they have become more so in the last 20 years. To integrate schools we must reverse federal tax and transportation policies that encourage suburban sprawl, regionalize urban and suburban school districts, and fund schools nationally instead of with local property taxes. Kristof ends his column with a rousing call to "end our 'separate but equal' school systems." And yet separate but equal, that model the Supreme Court unanimously declared inherently unattainable more than 50 years ago, seems to be what he advocates.