Every time a political leader argues—as President Obama did yesterday
—that more education can reduce inequality, I nod my head in agreement, thinking of all the ways that one's life chances in America are shaped by educational opportunity. I grew up in an affluent Westchester town and went to great public schools. The kids just down the road in Yonkers—two miles from my home—went to some of the worst schools in New York State.
But no sooner am I done nodding do I remember this inconvenient fact: Our economy only produces a limited number of truly good jobs these days—the kind that require a college education and offer a middle class life or better. Mainly, the economy generates crappy low wage jobs, and that trend is projected to worsen in coming decades.
So, yes, a more equitable education system will allow Americans to compete more fairly for the good jobs that exist. But that doesn't change the fact that wages for a majority of jobs has stagnated or fallen while most incomes gains have gone to the top. Equality of opportunity doesn't count for all that much against the backdrop of deep structural inequality. It just intensifies the competition to get to the right side of the widening income chasm.
Now, it's true that expandedinvestments in education tend to translate into more economic growh and wealth creation—since a more educated population is more productive and more likely to start new businesses, create new products and services, and compete more effectively at a global level. Growth in turn can lift all boats by creating tighter labor markets and putting workers in a better position to demand higher wages.
But that's a different logic chain than the normal progressive line about education. I don't hear Bill de Blasio saying that when he talks up universal pre-K for New York's poor kids. I hear him saying these kids will have more opportunities. But since New York's economy only produces so many middle class jobs while creating huge numbers of low-wage jobs, the question is: opportunity for what?