Updated: February 20, 2014 2:16PM
Precision and clarity have never been the hallmarks of campaign speeches or political slogans. So President Obama’s recent State of the Union speech was a welcome contribution to the debate about whether equality of income should be a policy objective of government.
What is important — equality of income, or equality of opportunity to earn an income? The president made clear that in his view it is the latter:
“Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.
“Americans understand that some people will earn more than others, and we don’t resent those who, by virtue of their efforts, achieve incredible success.”
The problem — for all of us — is that equal income opportunity today is a myth.
At the time of our country’s founding, the barriers to opportunity were embedded in English aristocratic titles and bloodlines — inherited political power and wealth. Since the Civil War, reformers have struggled against ongoing forms of discriminatory barriers, whether based on race or nationality or religion or sex.
Businessmen sometimes built monopolies and trusts — economic barriers to competition — to deprive would-be competitors of equal opportunity. Others used political clout to build and maintain legal barriers to constrain potential competitors.
As consumers, everybody wants to enjoy the benefits of competition; but as producers, too many want to deny others, whether businesses or individuals, an equal opportunity to compete for success and profit.
Big -city school unions are the modern-day spiritual bedfellows of old-time industrial monopolists. The biggest impediment today to equal income opportunity for individuals, at least in our big cities like Chicago, is our failed system of public education. The ability to read, write and perform simple math were once enough to earn a decent living. Today global communications and transportation — globalization of markets — have raised the bar.
There can be no hope for equal economic opportunity for inner-city kids without the availability of good schools. Teacher pay is important, but not without motivation of teachers. Competition is the great motivator; and customer choice is the engine of competition. The ability to manage and incentivize people is the key to making it work.
These don’t exist in Chicago’s public schools. Even the most skilled managers can’t effectively apply top-down management to a collective farm or a big-city monopoly school system with a 280-page union agreement, particularly when the union can strike if it doesn’t get what it wants.
Parental choice and charter schools can make Chicago public education work. They are making it work for a lucky few. But the school union chiefs hate the charters and what they represent. They want the income from union dues; and they wield their political clout and the threat of potential strikes to maintain barriers against competition from the charters.
The result is far worse than inefficiency or monopoly pricing. Keeping out charters prevents urban school kids from having a choice or a chance. A monopoly school system keeps kids from acquiring the skills they need for real equality of opportunity — both to earn an income and to succeed in life.
The way forward to equal income opportunity must include fundamental transformation of our urban schools. Without school choice for all, equal income opportunity will continue to be a myth for those who grow up in inner-city Chicago.