Tying Some Threads from Diversity to Education to Social Disparity

A paragraph underlined in my copy of the November 14 National Review relates very closely to a thread that one can spot winding through a number of public conversations, lately.  From “Closing the Achievement Gap,” by Reihan Salamj and Tino Sanandaji (emphasis added):

The Left often argues that the root cause of disparities in earnings is structural racism and discrimination. But a new study by economist James Heckman demonstrates that the disparities largely vanish once differences in skills are taken into account. This confirms similar findings in a study by the University of Chicago’s Derek Neal and another by Harvard University’s Roland Fryer. Overall, Hispanics and blacks who attain the same test scores as whites do not earn lower wages and are no less likely to enter college. We believe that disadvantages earlier in life account for the existence of skill disparities. Being assigned to worse schools and having a less stable family environment cause members of minority groups to enter the labor market with fewer skills than whites do, and therefore to earn less. But discrimination in the labor market itself does not appear to be the main explanation for the differences we have discussed.

Salam and Sanandaji go on to calculate that even closing half of the achievement gap by the year 2050 will be the annual-GDP difference between $38 trillion and $44 trillion.  Assuming the federal government’s take remains at about one-third of the total, that’s a difference of $2 trillion in revenue every year.

As the Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s recently released report, “Closing the Gap,” points out by comparing Florida’s education reform success with Rhode Island’s stasis, a mix of policies involving accountability and parental choice can narrow the achievement difference while increasing all scores.  More sharply drawn, Salam and Sanandaji note that “African-American students who entered high-quality charter schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone scored as well in mathematics as white children nationally.”

Bring into this the information that Beacon Hill Institute Economist Jonathan Haughton provided, yesterday, that Rhode Island leaves “behind a remarkable segment of the population,” with high percentages of doctors and college students, but low percentages of high school graduates and employed residents, by national standards.  It appears that part of what’s broken, in our state, is a mechanism for socioeconomic advancement, and a great deal of that results from a rigid and poorly performing education system.  Back to Salam and Snandaji:

… Heckman contends that programs must be targeted toward the truly disadvantaged in order to be cost-effective. Universal pre-school programs geared toward the middle class, such as those championed by President Obama, do not appear to work as well. In the case of middle-class children, families and communities already do an excellent job of norm- and character-formation, so universal pre-school education is largely a waste of scarce resources. It is for poor students that public schools must pick up the slack, and for whom the programs are effective. Such a strategy has been aggressively pursued by the highly successful KIPP charter-school network.

Yet, elementary school and pre-school are exactly the areas in which may advocates call for more resources.  To the contrary, the solution that is increasingly suggested by the data and by the experience of other states is one in which the efficiency of individual choice leads to a more intelligent allocation of resources.

To some degree, differences of opinion on this matter come down to the “fairness” divide — the argument between those who emphasize equivalent outcomes and those who seek a system that allows everybody to advance.  In the latter camp, a school choice plan might, yes, allow middle-and-high achieving students to move upward to higher-end private schools, but even by doing so, it would allow public schools to focus on the students that they actually serve, and as nobody seems inclined to argue, students in each category (however the categories are drawn) have different needs.