Closing the Achievement Gap
From the Nov. 14, 2011, issue of NR


Reihan Salam
The worst-case scenario is that the gaps between whites and non-whites in education and earnings will not change. In this scenario, the skills and earnings of the American work force decline, and per capita income growth falls to 1.49 percent per year. However, if we assume that policy reform or assimilation will close half of the educational-achievement gap by 2050, and that this in turn will close the earning gap by half, then the average growth rate per capita will be 1.85 percent per year. In this second scenario, the growing Hispanic population not only doesn’t reduce income growth, but actually mitigates some of the effects of population aging.

Comparing the two scenarios vividly illustrates the economic value of closing the achievement gap. The alternative futures available to us are an economy producing $38 trillion per year and an economy producing $44 trillion per year.

Since the American public sector historically has collected around one-third of GDP in revenue, the optimistic scenario could add close to $2 trillion to federal coffers every year, which could make the nation fiscally solvent and go a long way toward lowering public-debt levels. And there would also be gains in terms of lowered crime, healthier lifestyles, and improved family outcomes.

There is no question that liberals care as much about the plight of minorities as conservatives do. Their fault is not a lack of good intentions. Rather, it is coalition politics.

In Special Interest, Stanford political scientist Terry Moe offers an exhaustive account of the political influence of America’s 4 million unionized public-school teachers, and how it has been deployed to block education-reform efforts for the past few decades. Union leaders have thwarted attempts to deploy staff in a more efficient manner and to offer incentive-based compensation. Their solution to every problem in education is more money. And of course, any increase in resources is channeled toward either hiring more teachers, thus creating more loyal union members, or increasing compensation for teachers, ideally in a way tied to length of service and not quality of performance.

Though unionized public-school teachers are a force to be reckoned with in both political parties, they’ve grown particularly powerful with the Democrats. At recent Democratic national conventions, delegates from teachers’ unions have outnumbered delegates from California. Unionized public-school teachers are massively overrepresented in the Democratic grassroots, which has undoubtedly contributed to what we might call the neutering of the Obama administration’s education-reform efforts, and helps explain the president’s counterproductive insistence that state-level reform efforts have “buy-in” from teachers if they’re to have any hope of securing federal Race to the Top funds.

According to the OECD, the United States currently spends over $1 trillion per year on education, more than 8 percent of its national income. This makes the U.S. the second-highest spender on education among industrialized nations, whether we measure by share of national income or absolute dollars per pupil. Expenditure per pupil in elementary and secondary school is now in excess of $10,000 per year. Adjusted for inflation, this is two and a half times the sum that was spent per pupil in 1970, according to the Digest of Education Statistics. Despite this spending increase, reading and math test scores were virtually flat over the same time period, while, as mentioned above, high-school-graduation rates actually declined. 


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