Editors’ Note: This essay is featured in our spring 2023 issue. Order a copy here.
Can College Level the Playing Field? Higher Education in an Unequal Society
Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
The Walls around Opportunity: The Failure of Colorblind Policy for Higher Education
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
A long time ago the United States had a civil rights enforcement system that increased racial equality. Generations of Black critique and social movements finally led, in the late 1950s, to federally mandated voluntary desegregation agreements, but these accomplished very little. Many momentous events later, policy frameworks emerged in the mid-1960s that did have a meaningful impact. In 1963 John F. Kennedy proposed the Civil Rights Act that Lyndon Johnson, propelled by a relentless civil rights movement, finally pushed through a Congress that stalled it for weeks in 1964. A month after it was passed came the Economic Opportunity Act, the cornerstone of the federal War on Poverty. The following year saw the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the first general funding program for education in federal history) and the first Higher Education Act. By the end of this period the United States had laws prohibiting racial segregation and discrimination in several key arenas of national life, including housing, hospitality, education, employment, and elections.
Yet laws alone still weren’t enough. In his new book, The Walls around Opportunity, Gary Orfield—a leading scholar of civil rights in education—shows that what did work was straightforward legal and budgetary coercion. School districts would no longer be able to file desegregation plans and go home with an A for effort. Civil rights lawyers no longer had to sue each segregated school district one at a time; legislation authorized class-action lawsuits and the withholding of federal funds from any entity that failed to produce measurable progress toward desegregation. Perhaps in part because the United States was a nation created, expanded, and maintained through the use of force, it was force, legal and fiscal, that finally got results—at least for a brief historical moment.
As education economists Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson demonstrate in Can College Level the Playing Field?, that moment has passed. The authors usefully document yawning gaps in opportunity among economic and racial groups at every stage of life in the United States today, and they make two startling points about any possible remedies. First, improvements will require cooperation of all “our major social and economic institutions”—including all levels of education, which would be without precedent in U.S. history. Second, economic policy has pushed unequal opportunity to such extremes that reversing it “will be the work of generations.”
And yet, instead of systematically developing solutions as big as the problems they identify, the authors build toward the resigned conclusion that higher education policy can do little in light of the daunting “extent of the structural inequalities facing people throughout their lives.” They are right that colleges cannot do everything. But in the absence of a substantial argument about what needs to be done, this cautionary moral is more likely to function as an alibi for the status quo than to inspire action capable of meeting the structural challenge. Given their pallid endings, both books call on us to explore the roots of the policy paralysis that accompanies their clear vision of our inequality crisis.
Orfield presents a stark historical portrait of educational injustice. As he documents in detail, when U.S. states were left to their own discretion, they created a coast-to-coast tableau of discrimination in schooling. In the mid-1940s nearly half of Latino children in Texas had no education of any kind; in 1950 the average educational attainment of Southwest Latinos was less than the sixth grade. In 1964, Orfield reports, “there were still five southern states where at least 97 percent of the Black students were attending Black colleges.” This was true for three-quarters of Black students in the South overall. Schooling in the North and West was also largely segregated, if more informally, and financially unequal. Only limited progress had been made on higher education integration since 1910. (Up to that year, W. E. B. Du Bois noted, white colleges had graduated 693 Black students in all of U.S. history.) The segregated South of separate drinking fountains was only the most visible part of a spectrum of apartheid variations across the country that affected every aspect of daily life, also generating racially disparate wages and wealth accumulation during the economic boom following World War II.
The mid-1960s were the first meaningful turning point toward racial integration at least since the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Civil rights enforcement—in which the federal government was not only enabled but required to sue or defund discrimination—formally delegitimated American-as-apple-pie racial segregation in education. It sought an end to Black exclusion from white schools, starting with supporting the rights of Black students to transfer to white schools (already at issue in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954). By 1968, in Green v. County Sch. Bd. of New Kent County, the Supreme Court affirmed the goal of ending “dual school systems, part ‘white’ and part ‘Negro’” and replacing them with a “unitary, nonracial” system in which each school would be too integrated to be identified with a clearly dominant race.
The idea wasn’t to integrate U.S. society at large, however, but only to eradicate race-based schools. Different schools might still produce unequal outcomes—different average test scores and graduation rates—just not because there were white or Black schools. Coupled with infusions of federal funding that was specifically set aside for poor and vulnerable populations, schools were expected to have sufficiently similar financial means as well as demographics to allow any school system to be unitary in fact.
Mandatory racial integration became both the means and an ethical and sociocultural end in itself. It is notable that progress was measured by a growing equality of results. Between 1975–76 and 1980–81, Orfield observes, “the percentage of Southern Black graduates receiving their bachelor’s degrees from predominantly white institutions rose by a third” (and rose, though more slowly, outside the South). “For a brief period in the late 1970s, a Black high school graduate was about as likely as a white one to start college.” The share of Black people between the ages of 25 and 29 with a B.A. degree doubled during the 1960s, from 5.4 percent to 10 percent (it had also doubled in the 1950s from 2.8 percent). High school degrees for the same age cohort went from just under 40 percent to just under 60 percent in the 1960s, and grew to 77 percent through the 1970s. In other words, the movement toward racial equality—and our ongoing failure to achieve it—has been measured in the language not of opportunities but of outcomes: of closing racial gaps in graduation rates, wages, family wealth, and the like.
These gains prompted backlash. The right had been geared up against integration since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and was ready to fight these new federal mandates. Conservatives quickly racked up major political victories—Ronald Reagan’s election as California governor in 1966, Richard Nixon’s win of the White House in 1968 and repeat in 1972, and then Reagan’s ascent to the presidency in 1981. Economist Thomas Piketty has noted that wages grew as fast or faster than investment income for at most five decades in capitalism’s history, all in the middle of the twentieth century. Orfield sees a far more limited window of serious civil rights enforcement, lasting from 1965 to 1970. Civil rights funding carried on through the 1970s, aimed at increasingly voluntary programs, but that too mostly ended with Reagan’s presidency in 1981.
Nixon was able to appoint four conservative justices to the Supreme Court, which began to qualify civil rights rather than enforce them. In 1973 a 5–4 majority decided there was no constitutional right to equal school funding, undermining the material basis of equal outcomes. In 1974 it “ruled that a city’s suburbs could not be included in desegregation plans even when that was the only way to remedy a history of segregation.” This effectively endorsed white flight and residential segregation as end-runs around racially unitary school districts. In 1978 the Court decided that colleges could use affirmative action to enhance diversity for educational purposes but not to remedy a history of racial discrimination. This transformed the integration of university student bodies and faculty from a mandatory affair to a voluntary one, to be pursued at the discretion of the largely white officials who ran highly selective institutions. In 1991 and 1992 the Court ruled that federal desegregation orders can be ended if a district has ended past discriminatory practices and has been complying with the order in good faith. This pushed the closing of racial gaps back toward the pre-1960s terrain of a voluntary effort. In 2007 the Court ruled such “voluntary efforts of local communities illegal if students were selected on the basis of race, even in pursuit of maintaining integration opportunities in largely segregated communities.” Similar decisions were taking place in parallel on employment law and in other areas.
By the early 1990s conservatives had thus made racial integration optional once more. They redefined equal treatment as the duty not to use race as a policy category. Their alleged constitutional principle of colorblindness helped them to discredit the systematic measurement of outcome gaps across racial groups by bringing the category of race itself into disrepute. In California, Governor Pete Wilson convinced voters to outlaw affirmative action by burying data about the underrepresentation of Black and Latino students at the University of California in Berkeley and LA beneath a mountain of outrage that race was considered in admissions at all. The operational definition of a civil right was returned to state and other local officials; integration and parity in funding, graduation rates, and college qualification again depended on the good will of the managers of the various systems.
These preferences would best be sorted out through markets, the argument went, with government playing a minimal background role. Quality of outcomes would be best judged by the flow of private investments, and if this led to charter schools and further segregation, then so be it; this was the “freedom to choose” so central to American capitalism and democracy. Reagan famously said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Markets were Reagan’s solution: they would allow individuals to make their own decisions about housing, schooling, transportation, and the like. If capitalism was racialized, well, it wasn’t racism’s fault; it was just money and freedom. And government was not to interfere with either.
The all too familiar result has been a dramatic dismantling of Great Society gains—what Orfield has long called resegregation. “School segregation for both Blacks and Latinos has continuously increased since 1991,” he reports. In California in 1970 “the typical Latino had been in a majority-white school.” Now, Latino students in California on average “attend schools with only about a sixth whites and a great majority of fellow students living in poverty.” In the United States in 2016–17, “Black and Latino students were, on average, attending schools that were three-fourths nonwhite and with substantial majorities of children living in poverty, while white and Asian students were in middle-class schools.” In concurrence, Baum and McPherson use federal data to show that between 1995 and 2017, the share of Black students in schools at least three-quarters white has been cut by more than half, from an already small 11 percent down to 4 percent. The same has happened to Latino students. Black high school graduation rates among 25–29-year-olds moved from 77 percent to just 82 percent during the 1980s and didn’t reach 90 percent until 2013—the level achieved by whites in 1990. Over sixty years after Brown, a large share of students of color (excepting Asians) start from “double segregation,” isolated in schools with fewer resources in communities suffering the same conditions. The “unitary” school district is mere legend for the vast majority of U.S. students.
Something similar happened at colleges and universities. Since 1995 about three-quarters of Latino, Black, and indigenous students have attended underfunded colleges with low graduation rates compared to only about half of white students. Meanwhile, about half of white and most Asian American students have gone to wealthier schools with higher graduation rates. In 2019 bachelor degree attainment for 25–29 year olds was 72 percent and 45 percent for Asians and whites, and 26 percent and 23 percent for Black and Latino students.
The crucial metric is expenditures per student, and the gaps are very large. “The 82 most selective colleges spend almost five times as much and the most selective 468 colleges spend twice as much on instruction per student as the open-access schools,” a Georgetown University study has shown. And these are averages; gaps between the most selective universities like Stanford and Princeton and the rest are far larger.
In their third chapter, Baum and McPherson note a similar pattern. A major 2013 report that demonstrated this pattern was aptly titled “Separate and Unequal” and subtitled, “How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege.” It should have provoked national action to equalize cross-racial outcomes by equalizing funding, but it did not. Students of color did expand their share of college degrees after 1995, but this reflected demographic change more than additional investment in closing gaps in graduation rates. To the contrary, this was precisely the period in which public funding for higher education stagnated or fell, leaving most underrepresented students to their own devices—meaning more borrowing, more work during term, more overcrowded or precarious housing, and more visits to foodbanks.
What happened to civil rights momentum? A large and often brilliant literature has taken up this topic. One recurring theme is that the blunting of educational justice has been a bipartisan affair. The enabling framework was a reassertion of market control over social policy: “freedom to choose” for the Republicans, “learn to earn” and “education for growth” for the Democrats. Within that framework, three mechanisms are particularly notable.
The first was the failure of the primal desegregation decisions, Brown v. Board of Education I and II (1954 and 1955, respectively), to link desegregation to equality of resource outcomes. Legal scholar Cheryl I. Harris has argued that though the Court declared that separate is inherently unequal, “it remained unwilling to embrace any form of substantive equality, unwilling to acknowledge any right to equality of resources.” The Brown theory was that “inequality would be eradicated by desegregation.” If all students arrived to schools on a non-racial basis, then any remaining inequalities would not be attributable to racism—and the Court’s interest ended there. Never mind that predominantly white school districts might receive radically more funding than predominantly Black school districts, thanks in part to extreme variations in property values (and the wedding of school funding to local taxes). On this view, that isn’t racism; it’s just federalism and free association. In the words of scholar Alan Freeman, under Brown “there is no recognized right, no ethical claim for equality of resources or a substantively effective education as such.” This very much included the material inequalities between Black and white Americans that derived both from segregation and dispossession in the past and enduring deprivation in the present.
Harris did not see Brown’s original sin of omission as a mere oversight. Enduring inequality of material resources is the essence of white entitlement—what she calls “whiteness as property.” We now often use the term “racial capitalism” to name the inequality generated by the workings of a U.S. economy built around structural racial disparities in wealth, wages, housing, education, and other social resources. Neither the Warren Court nor civil rights liberalism confronted it.
The second move was to fuse education with economic performance while blaming teachers and liberal values for any inadequacy. The economic alarm was sounded by a federal report called “A Nation at Risk” (1983). Claiming that the country’s “mediocre educational performance” looks like what a foreign power might impose in an “act of war,” the report blew the trumpets of impending economic disaster. The cause? U.S. schools were not driving their students to compete with those from Germany, Japan, and South Korea in the knowledge economy. Among many others, its rather unhinged language was taken up by William Bennett, Reagan’s chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Secretary of Education, to create a nationwide pressure campaign to monitor schools. Reagan read the report as saying what he wanted to hear, which was that liberalism had led to “two decades in which money had been the only measure of progress in education, and in which, while Federal spending on education went steadily up, test scores fell steadily down and too many schools accepted the fashions of the day—the fashions of liberal culture—that held traditional standards in scorn.”
Reagan asserted these things at an event in 1988 for a Department of Education report entitled “American Education: Making it Work.” His administration simply buried the problems of segregation and racial inequality of educational outcomes, replacing them with the alleged problems of indulgent, liberal teachers, race consciousness, and too much government money, which would be fixed by imposing external standards, bringing in school vouchers, encouraging private schools and public subsidies for them, cutting public funds, and disciplining teachers who couldn’t get test results. As we all know now, the Reagan-era rollback failed at its official goal, which was to improve educational outcomes. In 2017 the United States ranked twelfth in degree attainment in OECD statistics, with one of the smallest rates of improvement in the forty-eight countries tracked. But Reaganism succeeded at its unofficial goal, which was to redefine civil rights as a burden to economic prosperity, social order, and the white majority.
What made Reaganism especially damaging, however, was that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama accepted most of it. In the 1990s Clinton assembled liberal experts who called for the regeneration of America through globalization and technology, not equality and justice. In 2002 George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, implementing a punishing regime of high-stakes testing in K–12 education that cast schools and teachers—rather than widespread inequality—as the problem, and through the Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, launched in 2009 just six months after taking office, Obama kept Bush’s focus on identifying underperforming schools as well as teachers classed as failures on the basis of test scores. Throughout the Obama years, Orfield notes, teachers still tried to avoid stigmatized schools and worked under controlled curricula where learning was defined down as the students’ successful reproduction of test materials. Late in his second term Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which eliminated some aspects of Bush’s high-stakes testing—the implementation at the federal level—but also dramatically curtailed the role of the federal government in educational oversight across the board, largely returning the issue to the states.
Neither Clinton nor Obama pushed unionized wages in order to diminish the “college premium” or supported racially unitary school districts through equalized funding. Neither administration pounded away on the themes of structural racism, underdevelopment, or the need for equitable funding of public schools. And both administrations accepted the Republican definition of affirmative action as a “thumb on the scale” of objective merit rather than criticizing the fundamental structure of meritocracy as an engine of social and economic inequality. In short, the Democratic Party capitulated to the Reaganite vision: rather than viewing education as a public good—for equal outcomes regardless of private means—it has gone on making education dependent on private resources and market choices, all while pretending that education—not “labor unions or a progressive tax code,” say—is “the key to addressing economic inequality,” as Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider recently put it. In this post-Reagan Democratic consensus, learning is still above all about earning, and justice simply requires continuous performance audits of teachers and students, all for the sake of market-led growth. The inequality boom has been the predictable result.
Higher education has suffered a similar fate. Over the last several decades, public universities have accepted state cuts in large part because it was harder to fight the statehouse than to raise tuition on students. In 1995 states on average allocated $8,922 per “full-time equivalent student.” In 2020 that figure was $8,636, below the 1995 level adjusted for inflation. Public college students spent much of the 2010s getting allocations that were 10–20 percent below those of 1995. The federal government accepted a dramatic drop in the relative value of its main grant, the Pell grant, and a shift of financial aid from grants to loans. It let a good chunk of the federal loan system be siphoned off by for-profit colleges, leading disproportionate shares of students of color toward the worst graduation rates, highest debt loads, and highest default rates in known higher education history. Cuts particularly hurt the lower-cost colleges students of color and poor students disproportionately attend, reducing the kind of educational contact, small classes, and permanent faculty that increase learning. State colleges jacked up tuition, often at a faster pace than the privates, which still didn’t cover losses to instructional budgets, encouraging the adjunctification of the professoriat.
Administrators looked to ed-tech as a magic bullet, treating online education as if it made reinvestment in public colleges unnecessary—even when results were inferior to face-to-face instruction, particularly for Black and Latino students. This highly unequal system was legitimated by the rankings industry, which made enormously uneven status and outcomes seem a natural feature of a competitive system rather than the problem that the civil rights movement had tried to fix. Most people disliked pretty much all of these trends. Noting the drops in public confidence in the value of a college degree, education economists began to re-rank colleges via their contribution to social mobility (another name for upward mobility), a zero-sum game that further eclipsed the vision of egalitarian improvement across the board. In short, post-1990 higher ed policy has steadily eroded the material conditions of civil rights, even as diversity, equity, and inclusion remain solemn goals.
These first two moves away from racial equality—condoning wealth inequality as an inevitable consequence of freedom and redefining education in terms of economic results—have had significant but well-documented effects. Perhaps even more insidious is the third move: a retreat to equal opportunity as somehow separable from equal outcomes. And it is on this third move that both books are most disappointing. Indeed, they exemplify it.
Equality of opportunity has been a mainstream policy goal for years now, and it is the ethical horizon of these two arguments—the “level playing field” of Baum and McPherson’s title. But a different mainstream operated in the mid-1960s, one that saw equal opportunity as the means to the end of equal outcomes. That goal appeared in a famous commencement address Lyndon Johnson delivered at Howard University in 1965:
Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally, in American society—to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is the right to be treated in every part of our national life as a person equal in dignity and promise to all others.
But freedom is not enough. . . . You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.
Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. And this is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights.
We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact, and equality as a result.
Johnson defined equal opportunity as the gateway to equal results. This could not mean that every individual would end up with equal resources, but it did mean that equal outcomes should hold across racial groups. On average, Black students would graduate from high school at roughly the same rates as whites, go on to university at the same rates, get bachelors’ degrees at the same rates, and so on. (The same would be true of indigenous and Latino students—indeed students from any racial group.) With visible and structural inequalities truly undone, Blacks as a group would come to earn, on average, the same as whites in employment after college, and their family wealth would soon become comparable (rather than get stuck at 15 percent of white wealth, where it has lingered for years). A similar line of thought lay behind the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution: women should earn the same as men. On this conception, justice entails not the right to compete to be equal—as had been done for centuries—but being equal in fact.
Johnson said the quiet part out loud—the part that Baum, McPherson, and Orfield cannot bring themselves to say even today. The argument of his Howard speech is the only coherent theory of civil rights: if no racial group is innately inferior to another and opportunity is genuinely equally distributed, then we should expect to see equal outcomes across groups. The upshot is that if a social system is producing unequal group outcomes, the only reasonable conclusion is that opportunities are not distributed equally. This is what Johnson was saying. It is what the Black Power movement was saying. And it is what Martin Luther King, Jr., was saying with increasing vehemence from 1965 through 1968 as Johnson and the Democratic Party got cold feet.
The quiet part generally went quiet again as liberals and progressives tried to preserve and extend civil rights gains in the face of vigorous white opposition. But equality is the civil rights logic that any accurate analysis of educational outcomes must reckon with, even while acknowledging the successes and likelihood of backlash. Equal opportunity and equal outcomes are not the same concept, but they are inevitably connected, and the connection was always in view during the height of civil rights enforcement.
On this point, Baum, McPherson, and Orfield put themselves in an awkward position. All three authors are distraught at our “age of inequality.” The main point of both books is to show how higher education has become utterly hamstrung by rampant inequality in every other sphere of life. Most of Baum and McPherson’s chapters discuss pre-college forms of inequality that pervade the lives of working-class students and students of color. Orfield lists the “racial inequalities that often severely limit the development of students of color on the path to college,” identifying twenty-two distinct, damaging items—from growing up in homes where reduced resources have reduced their learning before they start school, to experiencing residential isolation from strong schools and districts, to having more residential instability, to being more liable to suspension and school policing, to having fewer teachers of their own race and ethnicity, to having less information about college, and so on. Both books offer accurate, convincing portraits of racial equality in a long retreat.
But both books stop short of drawing the obvious moral: that American education is trapped in an inequality machine—what other authors forthrightly call racial capitalism—and that rather than continuing to fall in line, it must stop complying and reinvent civil rights from the ground up. In fact, Orfield calls Johnson’s vision of equal outcomes an “outlier,” marginalizing it early on in his book. Baum and McPherson call for better pathways to degree completion, better advising, and more auditing of colleges to improve “accountability.” We’ve long been doing the last of these, to little effect, and the authors give no reason why their other prescriptions will do much better.
Baum and McPherson do say we need to focus on “reducing the differences in opportunities and outcomes between individuals from low-income backgrounds and those with more resources.” Yes—but that’s where the book should start, not where it should end! They add, “There is persuasive evidence that spending more on the education” of students at community colleges and other broad-access institutions “pays off in higher graduation rates.” Yes! So let’s spend more—a lot more! “Inadequate funding of broad-access colleges is a major national problem.” Yes! So let’s actually fund the reduction of racialized outcomes gaps! These sentences appear on page 198 of a 264-page book, effectively dissolved in a reservoir of anxiety about costs. The glimmers of a new dawn for funding are lost in Republican-style bootstrapping claims that even poor colleges can do much better “with the scant resources that many of these institutions have.”
Orfield, for his part, calls for “race-sensitive” policies and wants to tear down the “walls” of unequal school preparation and inadequate college financial aid. But he offers no major investment plans that would actually do this, and his biggest wall is his own worry about public expense. (One bit of good news is that the social costs of equalized education have been greatly exaggerated. A group in California calculated the cost to the median taxpayer of creating free college for all three of that state’s public systems, with state funding raised back to inflation-adjusted 2001 levels, would have cost the median worker, in 2018, an additional $66 per year.)
The pattern is pervasive. Both books are preoccupied with targeting programs rather than generalizing them. This is the long-time Clinton-Obama strategy that has undermined political solidarity, eroded the philosophy of social goods required by all, and insured uneven results. Both books reject the two most significant educational social movements of the past decades—the movement for free college and the movement for student debt cancellation—that have driven a renaissance of race-conscious analysis of disparate impacts. And both books focus on increasing limited kinds of procedural fairness, clouding the egalitarian vision animating the overall struggle.
The result—like so much cognitive dissonance in a mind divided against itself—makes for painful reading. “I’m not a neoliberal,” the ego insists, but the superego plainly is. This split creates the limbo in which so much progressive policy thinking finds itself today. These authors know that post-Brown education policies have failed, generating inequality by their very nature. And the authors are opposed to current levels of inequality. But they cannot muster the political will or directly summon the intellectual resources to challenge an inherently anti-egalitarian system. Instead, they invite us to go on “tinkering toward utopia,” as two historians of school reform put it in a different context more than twenty years ago.
In reality, the portrait of inequality so scrupulously depicted in these books implies a conclusion their authors effectively recoil from: that we must massively rebuild a full range of social systems on truly egalitarian grounds. In practice, this means using the general tax system, not the selective tuition system, to support general, high-quality, equitably distributed educational resources accessible to all. It means highly progressive tax rates on income, wealth, and financial transactions of various kinds. It means redirecting money away from the places where resources have disproportionately and unfairly pooled during the past four decades, into neighborhoods, regions, and districts that have been unjustly neglected. It means building affordable housing for students and their families, guaranteeing health and child care and good jobs, and transforming community safety. And through it all, it means repudiating the neoliberal deference to markets and reviving a forceful role for government in securing the public good.
In short, we need nothing less than a comprehensive reconstruction of U.S. society. As these books themselves make so clear, the roots of educational injustice extend far beyond classroom walls and school district boundaries. Better academic mentoring, a strong program of affirmative action, and “feasible” adjustments in district funding will never cut it on their own; they are at best Band-Aids laid over the critical wounds of racial capitalism. The reason the problem will never be solved solely by changes at the level of individual educational institutions—or even under the isolated rubric of “education policy” writ large—is that the problem is the whole interlocking structure of social and economic life in which our educational institutions are embedded. It will take more than Baum’s and McPherson’s passing reference to this fact to meet this challenge.
This vision—a massive program of just distribution across all the core areas of U.S. society, administered by the full force and effect of the developmental welfare state—is a functionally socialist project from the vantage of mainstream U.S. politics today. Perhaps this is why the very idea is unspeakable in nearly all education policy discussions in the United States: afraid to sound “political” (much less socialist), they aspire to be neutrally technocratic. Yet nothing in these books—or their many similar kin—suggests any other way to get equal educational outcomes of the kind justice requires; we have already endlessly tried. There is no escaping the fact that equality of outcome must be a substantive political goal. The conclusion these books force on us, however indirectly, is that we must take it seriously.
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