Sunday, November 25, 2012

John Rawls and the Conservative Argument for Strong Public Education

The most poignant fact about education in New Jersey is its stratification. Frankly, I would rather that it be mediocre or poor throughout the state that defined by an inequitable distribution; if all schools were relatively bad no one is gaining any particular advantages. The correlation between academic success and quality of life is fairly strong. An excellent education increases an individual’s ability to be relatively autonomous, similarly increasing the number of choices available to those individuals. Well educated people have a stronger sense of empowerment. They have a greater sense of mobility, autonomy, and understanding of the world. They vote in larger percentages. They have stronger networks through which they can prosper and secure advantages not readily accessible to poorly educated people. Let’s face it; there are very few well educated poor people.

Empirical evidence makes it clear that students in poorer communities are burdened with an inferior education. The point right now is not to lay blame, because quite frankly there is considerable blame to go around. The issue I want to raise today is whether inequitable educational opportunities are a moral issue, because as such I would argue that unless this inequality can be justified than it cannot be sustained.

In the Theory of Justice, John Rawls addressed the issue of “justified inequality,” and advanced Two Principles of Justice: first, that all citizens have an equal right to “the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others,” and second, that “social inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (A) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.”

This variation of social contract theory raises the question of whether the drastic inequalities in evidence today can be justified as being to everyone’s mutual benefit, so in essence the poor accept having an inferior education because the sum result benefits them as well as the better off.

Now where valid arguments can be made to justify some element of inequality in the economic sphere, it is more difficult to sustain those arguments in education, since access to a quality education is a critical prerequisite for obtaining the liberty spelled out in the first principle.

The most important thing to remember is that children did not choose where and to whom they were born, so the fact that some children are rich and some are poor, that some live in communities with excellent schools and some live in communities with horrible schools is strictly a matter of chance. I find it hard to argue against society, mainly through its political and economic institutions, aggressively working to “level the playing field,” removing as much as possible the advantages and disadvantages of birth. In doing so we can navigate towards that ideal of creating a meritocracy, where equality of opportunity is so strongly defended that individuals can no longer assign blame for their relative poverty to “society” and “the system.”

Creating relative fairness amongst New Jersey schools is actually consistent with conservative thinking, since more fairness and equality of opportunity improves the chances for greater numbers of people to live a life free of dependence on the state for their sustenance. The problem conservatives have is that they have been so enamored with policies – vouchers and choice- that do little to improve public education in broad terms.

However, there is an important consideration that must be understood to fully justify aggressive government intervention to achieve greater equity. We already know that greater equity cannot be achieved by somehow reducing the quality of high achieving schools. Equity must be achieved by improving the quality of learning in our poorly performing schools, and here we are faced with dilemmas. There are numerous stakeholders in public education, and in the same way we look to these stakeholders to help improve these schools, we must look to these stakeholders and weigh, relatively speaking, their culpability in producing substandard schools and poorly achieving students.

The problem is that, in assigning blame, parents must be held accountable. Children did not choose their parents, and so those in poverty did not choose this lifestyle. However, they have a right to demand that their parents will work tirelessly to provide whatever resources and support they can offer to help give their children a “fighting chance,” a chance to achieve the equality of opportunity characteristic of a just, fair society.

Some way must be found to hold parents more accountable for their children’s academic success or failure. Please look back at one of my previous posts to see the 6 ways that parents are responsible for their children’s achievement. Society must step in to help support parental efforts to overcome inequities, whether it be through finding better teachers, giving parents greater access to equity, or creating programs that better integrate the business and education communities.

It is clear that equity in public education is a moral imperative, and that our failure to create greater equity compromises pronouncements that America is at its heart a meritocracy. Justice demands a more level playing field, which will then lead to greater equality of opportunity. Our current level of inequity is tantamount to discrimination, which from an economic perspective leads to inefficiencies and waste. The lack of a more equitable distribution of resources flies in the face of conservative thinking by supporting a system that will lead to greater dependence and less autonomy. Conservatives and a strong public school system, they are ideas that go perfect together.  




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