The Rawlsian Path Out

October 15, 2008

Perhaps children will read better by the light of my Broader/Bolder money bonfire…

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

John Rawls’ influential work A Theory of Justice argued that societal ethics ought to be decided as if we were behind a theoretical “veil of ignorance.”

Behind the veil, no one would be aware of what his or her position would be in a forthcoming society. You would not know whether you would grow up the child of a billionaire or poor in the inner city. The veil creates an incentive to leave a path out of the latter scenario.

Matthew Miller’s reading of Rawls calls for the aim of public policy to be the creation equality of opportunity, rather than equality of condition. But how much of a path do public schools actually represent for disadvantaged children?

Gauging opportunity is tricky, given that we really only have information on the equality of condition. Let’s be brave and speculate. The percentage of free or reduced price lunch students scoring “Advanced” on the 4th grade NAEP reading test in 2007 was — drumroll – two.

That’s right. Two percent- two point zero. While this was double the one point zero from 1998, it is hardly satisfying.

Mind you, total per pupil spending as of 2004-5 was $10,725. So, a child that has been in the average public school in this country since kindergarten will have had somewhere in the neighborhood of $55,000 spent on their education by the time they reach 4th grade.

Might we not get two percent scoring advanced in the complete absence of a public school system? If we spend $55K per kid to improve their opportunities, shouldn’t we be doing a lot better than 2%?

Some of course will grumble that the Advanced level on NAEP is simply too high a bar to expect an economically disadvantaged child to clear. So, let’s go down a level- 15% of free and reduced lunch kids score “Proficient” on 4th grade reading. Add in your two scoring Advanced, and you have 17% of low-income children reading at a high level.

In return for the taxpayer’s $55,000, we get 83% of our low-income children reading at less than a high level. Half of these children score “Below Basic.” Here is NAEP’s definition of Basic in 4th Grade Reading:

Fourth-grade students performing at the Basic level should demonstrate an understanding of the overall meaning of what they read. When reading text appropriate for fourth-graders, they should be able to make relatively obvious connections between the text and their own experiences and extend the ideas in the text by making simple inferences.

That doesn’t sound like a great deal to ask for $55,000 and five years of schooling- but half of the nation’s low-income children didn’t get there in 2007.

Now, we actually have NAEP data for one urban school district- Washington DC. DCPS shells out over $20,000 per year per student. So, a 4th grader has “benefited from” more than $100,000 of funding. Or, at least someone has benefited. DCPS had exactly zero point zero low-income students scoring at the advanced level in 2007. Well, not precisely zero- the NAEP footnotes note that the number “rounds down to zero.”

Six percent of DCPS low-income 4th graders scored Proficient or better, 29% at Basic or better, and 71% at Below Basic.

Regardless of your philosophical viewpoint, these results simply cannot be credibly defended. When the Texas Rangers overpaid for Alex Rodriquez and found themselves in last place, the General Manager noted that he could be in last place with the lowest rather than a sky-high payroll. DCPS is in the same boat. Give me half of the DCPS budget as an incentive program for kids to read books at the library, and I’ll get you more than zero kids scoring as advanced readers.

Education is the key to social mobility. Those who believe in Rawlsian ideals will be facing the reality that they can either have an alliance with the defenders of the status-quo, or they can have an effective K-12 path out of poverty, but they cannot have both.