A secondary theme from this Kevin Williamson essay relates to something I’ve been hearing on the subject of school choice, lately:
Being poor is a burden; being poor in a poor community is a danger. Poverty — individual poverty or family poverty — is difficult enough to overcome; overcoming it in an environment in which everybody one encounters is in roughly the same situation (or worse) is much more difficult. One of the best ways to increase generational income mobility for children born in places such as the poor sections of Baltimore is — this will not surprise you — to get the hell out of Baltimore, the sooner the better: The income effects of leaving Baltimore are more pronounced the younger the child is when he leaves.
But exit is not really going to be much of a broad solution for places such as Baltimore and Detroit. The white middle class left long ago; less remarked upon was the dramatic exit of the black middle class from those communities. In poor urban communities, as in the Big White Ghetto of Appalachia, most of those with the resources to leave left long ago. Simply abandoning poor cities is not really much of an answer.
I’ve heard a number of comments from people who express skepticism about school choice based on the assumption that it won’t immediately benefit children in the most challenging circumstances. The child of the drug-abusing single mother won’t be as likely to benefit from school choice as those of his classmates whose parents have their acts together.
A first-order answer is that this isn’t really true. School choice programs lead public schools to improve. Some of that’s simply the pressure of competition, but some of it is also the increased ability of the public schools to concentrate on the needs of the students who remain, for whom there will be more money remaining per student. And then there are organizations, like the San Miguel school and Star Kids, whose mission is to help such children, specifically.
The more-important answer, though, is that the skeptics’ concern ties into the whole welfare-state mentality that, in actuality, preserves a culture of failure. Looking at the personal stories of Rep. Ray Hull and Gertrude Jones posted on RIFreedom’s school choice page, it’s striking that they both had families that worked hard to do what was right for their children. They should be models, not opportunities for naysayers to slip in a “yeah, but.”
Public policy should strive to help people who’ll maximize the opportunity that the community is able to offer. Some of those people will choose, as Williamson suggests, to exit their bad neighborhoods. Others will stay. Either way, though, they’ll point the way toward a path that the next family down the line can follow.
Life boats on a sinking ship should be withheld until the people who are farthest away can reach them. They should load up shipwreck survivors as they arrive. Disadvantaged communities need opportunity and inspiration more than they need government holding down others in order to enforce a perverted vision of fairness.