Commentary cover story calls for a conservative social-justice agenda

Even those of who take issue with the nebulous concept of “social justice” should read Arthur Brookscover story for the latest issue of Commentary magazine. Brooks makes the case for a conservative social-justice agenda, including policies that would boost economic opportunity.

Nothing inspires conservatives more than a Horatio Alger story, the tale of a man or woman who started with nothing and climbed to the top. Therefore, I submit, nothing should trouble the political right more than the fact that the ladder of socioeconomic opportunity seems to be losing its lowest rungs.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston has shown that in 1980, 21 percent of Americans in the bottom income quintile rose to the middle quintile or higher by 1990. But those who started off in the bottom quintile in 1995 had only a 15 percent chance of becoming middle class in 2005. That is a one-third decline in mobility in under a generation. Other analyses tell a similar tale. One 2007 Pew study measured relative mobility in Canada and Scandinavia at more than twice America’s level.

How can a conservative social-justice agenda reverse these trends and expand opportunity for all? An opportunity society has two basic building blocks: Universal education to create a base of human capital and an economic system that rewards hard work, merit, innovation, and personal responsibility. So opportunity conservatism must passionately advance education reform and relentlessly defend the morality of free enterprise.

Education reform has been discussed ad nauseam in these pages and elsewhere. We know that meaningful progress cannot be made in sclerotic systems that put adults’ job security before children’s civil rights and that resist the innovations that upgrade the rest of the economy.

Per-pupil federal education spending has skyrocketed to nearly four times its 1970 level, according to data compiled by Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute. What has this massive inflow of new resources bought us? A sizeable increase in our school systems’ employment rolls—but no detectable increase in our children’s test scores in reading, science, or math. …

… What to do? It’s not as if we have no idea how to improve the situation. Decades of research and experimentation in real communities have shown how charter schooling, vouchers, and other innovations can benefit needy children. In one rigorous 2007 study, scholars from Harvard and the Brookings Institution found that school vouchers in New York City significantly increased the proportion of African-American students who went on to attend college. Research from Stanford shows that access to charter schools reduced New York City’s black-white achievement gap by 66 percent in reading and a stunning 86 percent in math; a Harvard economist has found that Boston’s charters produce similarly massive improvements.

AEI education expert Frederick M. Hess has spent decades reviewing these results, and his conclusion is unambiguous: “For poor parents trapped in dangerous and underperforming urban school systems, it is pretty clear that school choice works.”

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