Teaching Profession Opinion

See You in the Center

By Michael J. Petrilli — October 17, 2013 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

You might be right that our differences are too big to bridge; perhaps the generational divide is part of the problem. I’m a child of the 1980s and the Reagan Revolution. The idea that unions are essential to democracy, for instance, never made much sense to me; by my time, they seemed like one more interest group. Nor does the “soak the rich” class-warrior rhetoric ring my bells. Maybe because I don’t live in Gotham? Maybe because I worry that any effort to confiscate wealth will backfire (in terms of lower economic growth) and will only end up hurting the poor?

I don’t think it’s just us, though. What’s been instructive about our discussion is that it shows how deep the divides are when it comes to social policy in America. (Of course, anyone following the news out of Washington could have told us that.) I totally understand the frustration of educators who complain that policymakers put all the problems of the world on their shoulders and want to see “broader and bolder” efforts to fight poverty, too. But there’s a simple reason that education has been in the spotlight for so long: It’s one of the few things upon which the politicians--and the Americans they represent--can agree.

The left, after all, views poverty as the result of structural changes in the economy, systematic inequities (including inequities in school funding), and the lingering effects of racism. It wants a European-style welfare state in order to lift up the poor and reduce income divides. The right, on the other hand, worries about the corrupting effects of dependency, the connection between family breakdown and poverty, and embraces “equality of opportunity” over “equality of outcomes.” The efforts the right will support must focus on individual effort and responsibility; to them, market-based solutions are best.

These Venn diagrams barely overlap, and where they do, improving our schools is smack in the middle. Making our education system less inequitable fits the liberal narrative; expanding opportunity through better schools (and school choice) connects with conservatives. On the whole, this is good for K-12 education, and it has certainly resulted in healthy levels of funding (at least until the onset of the Great Recession).

Expanding the list of anti-poverty initiatives that could gain support from across the political spectrum is a worthy goal. I’m personally committed to it. But there’s not much beyond education reform. Perhaps the Earned Income Tax Credit, since it incentivizes work while providing a living wage. Or pre-K education, which has broken through in the past decade, especially when conservatives are assured that initiatives will target the neediest children, link to quality metrics, and be open to “diverse providers” (churches, nonprofits, for-profits, etc.). In Ohio, for instance, Senate Education Chair Peggy Lehner recently pushed through a 50 percent increase in early-childhood funding--this in a state with a GOP-controlled legislature and a Republican governor.

What else might be a likely candidate for bipartisan action? Richard Rothstein is right that it’s an outrage that many poor children continue to be afflicted by lead poisoning, which causes serious developmental delays and suppresses academic achievement. I could imagine well-designed private-public partnerships to correct this problem once and for all.

Prison reform is another topic that’s bubbling on both sides of the aisle. The link with childhood poverty is obvious--it’s hard to be a good mom, dad, or steady provider when you’re locked up. And you don’t have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to worry about the fact that America has the largest per-capita prison population in the developed world, many times over. Libertarians surely understand this affront to our liberty, too.

But what else? I’m out of ideas.

If we are to add to this paltry list, both sides need to give.

Liberals need to understand that “cradle-to-grave” social programs are never going to fly with a big chunk of the American population. That means abandoning hopes for major cash-transfer policies or welfare benefits for childless, working-age adults.

Conservatives must concede that intergenerational poverty isn’t going to magically disappear by itself. That means embracing interventions that are powerful enough--and well funded enough--to break through the social dysfunction at the root of the problem.

This isn’t a good week to make the case for bipartisanship or centrist solutions. But with efforts to break the cycle of poverty, as with most else, I’m afraid there’s no other way.

- Mike

Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-policy think tank based in Washington, where he writes for the award-winning Flypaper blog. He is also an executive editor of Education Next and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelPetrilli.

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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.