It has become the most overused shibboleth of many a moderate or "contrarian" liberal pundit to say that the left does poor kids a disservice by refusing to confront teachers unions and enact education reform. Case in point, Nicholas Kristof in today's New York Times. "The Democratic Party ... has admirably led the fight against poverty—except in the one way that would have the greatest impact. Good schools constitute a far more potent weapon against poverty than welfare, food stamps or housing subsidies." Ah yes, if I were a kid in East St. Louis I'd much rather be homeless but have teachers with merit pay than housing subsidies. I remember when I went to Cambodia—Kristof's favorite country—and all those kids with missing limbs were begging by the side of the road for an end to teacher tenure.
Call me a tool of the teacher's unions, or a glutton, but I'd take food stamps over "fewer certification requirements that limit entry to the teaching profession," if I were an impoverished student in Oakland or Appalachia. Anyway, good schools and food stamps don't need to be compared against one another. They are complementary goods, not competing ones...
The reforms that Kristof advocates, with the exception of charter schools, which are not necessarily better than regular schools, are sensible. But better teachers for the six hours, 180 days per year, that students from poor families in poor communities spend in school is no panacea.
We seem to believe that if we just keep looking we'll find the key school reform that will magically fix our schools. Reformers focus their energies generally on the teachers and that's fine as far is it goes but there is no panacea - achievement in school correlates to poverty. Unless and until we deal with poverty we'll continue chasing our tails trying to find that magic fix.
Yglesias disagrees and per usual when he discusses education his commenters smack him in the mouth.