Depth Takes a Holiday

In yesterday’s New York Times, David Brooks lamented the yawning chasm in educational attainment that divides America: the children of wealthy and highly-educated parents graduate from high school and go on to college vastly more often than those of lower-income, less educated parents. Here, he is on solid ground. But, columnists being columnists, Brooks goes on to give us his unsubstatiated opinion that: “Barack Obama’s education proposals… flow naturally and persuasively from this research,” while “McCain’s policies seem largely oblivious to these findings,” as exemplified by the Republican’s “vague talk about school choice.”

A look at the evidence reveals Brooks’ intuition to be exactly backwards.

Senator Obama’s education platform can verily be described as more of what the federal government has already been doing: more spending on government pre-school programs aimed at ever-younger children, especially the fifty-year-old Head Start program; tweaking of the No Child Left Behind act to make it look a little more like it did in its first four decades, when it went under the name Elementary and Secondary Education Act., etc.

But these programs were in full blown operation during the entire period, from the seventies to the nineties, during which Brooks notes that ”America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl.” So Brooks is arguing that doing more of the same is a “natural” and “persuasive” solution to our longstanding educational problems. His hope in this regard is indeed audacious.

And what of McCain’s “vague talk” about private school choice programs? Is it really irrelevant to the educational attainment gap that Brooks is so concerned with? If Brooks had spend just a few minutes Googling the issue he would have come across the nationwide study by University of Chicago economist Derek Neal showing that urban African Americans are vastly more likely to graduate from high school, gain acceptance to college, and graduate from college if they attend Catholic rather than public schools. He would have found the similar findings by Evans and Schwab. He might even have come across the two separate studies of the Milwaukee voucher program showing significantly higher graduation rates for the poor students attending private schools under that program than for students in the Milwaukee public school system. 

People who actually care about the socio-economic divide in our nation should familiarize themselves with the evidence before trying to influence public opinion on presidential candidates or policies.