Are Wall Street Bonuses A Threat To Our Nation's Schools?

Chris Hayes is as a rule pretty unsnarky. Indeed, he’s extremely generous with his interlocutors. So it’s always striking when he employs snark.

Obviously, the biggest problem our nation faces is the fact that the teachers’ unions continue to oppose pay for performance.

The link is to a post on (hence the title of this post) large Wall Street bonuses.

I think the message is, “Conservatives are harping about merit pay, but bankers are being payed millions of dollars!”

Consider the following conversation.

Hey public schools, how’s it going? I’m a middle class parent.

Not bad. I mean, I don’t think we’re getting paid enough relative to Wall Street bankers.

Yeah, neither am I, I guess. My wage growth has been pretty flat for the last few decades. So … how’s that educating going?

We need more resources!

Yeah, no, totally. Um, but what about those resources we’ve been giving you?

I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation. I mean, garbagemen are paid better than we are! What does that say about how much America values education?

Yeah, my dad was a garbageman. But anyway, isn’t that kind of a non sequitur?

Clearly you don’t care about the children.

I … wait … what?

I’d be hard pressed to think of critics of teacher’s unions who believe that merit pay is “the biggest problem our nation faces.” I actually don’t think merit pay is in the top 100. I think we need

a weighted student formula or some other form of choice that empowers school administrators and parents, the better to spark constructive experimentation with co-op schools, city-as-schools, and other alternatives

some means of effectively educating disruptive students separately from non-disruptive students, the real problem behind class-size complaints

summer opportunity scholarships, as proposed by The Hamilton Project, and more broadly year-round schooling and all-day schools, particularly for poor kids

None of these proposals represent a silver bullet. And none of them directly address the changing family structure that’s driving high rates of child poverty and exacerbating the stress children face outside of school.

Ironically, inequality really is an important part of the picture, albeit indirectly: as Robert Frank argues in Falling Behind, the race to enter “above-average” school districts contributes to the phenomenon of Americans spending an ever-larger share of income on housing. Less inequality might mean parents would spend fewer hours working and more time with their children, which would contribute to their overall well-being and ability to learn.

Of course, this problem could also be ameliorated through some kind of school choice program that breaks or at least undermines the link between school funding and home prices. But these programs are … opposed by the same institutions that oppose merit pay.

Perhaps we should never question teachers under any circumstances. This has a certain logic as a matter of left coalition politics.

As for those bankers, I can’t see how their largesse is responsible or even tied to the struggles faced by poor children. Perhaps they should be taxed more to pay for intensive early childhood interventions. I can definitely endorse that. But I’m guessing they’d still be paid quite a lot. Given that much of the northern European advantage in child poverty stems from greater family stability, it seems decidedly unobvious that America sans Wall Street would be better able to tackle the child poverty problem.

Moreover, I tend to think we see real normative diversity in modern America, which is to say I think there are millions of Americans who aren’t out to maximize their incomes. When Tyler Cowen cited Thomas Lemieux’s work on increasing residual wage inequality, he noted that

more-educated groups show greater income inequality than less-educated groups. Uneducated people are more likely to be clustered in a tight range of relatively low incomes. But the educated will include a greater range of highly motivated breadwinners and relaxed bohemians, and a greater range of winning and losing investors. A result is a greater variety of incomes. Since the United States is growing older and also more educated, income inequality will naturally rise.

This seems like a natural outgrowth of life in a free society. Again, I don’t rule out the possibility that “highly motivated breadwinners” should be subject to stiffer taxes. Perhaps it would force them to spend more time with their families! And as a personal matter, I strongly endorse “relaxed bohemianism.” But I worry that a society that imposes these choices becomes increasingly illiberal.