It’s telling that the first big pitch from the Obama administration and down-ballot Democratic candidates in 2014 is a push for raising the minimum wage—an issue that’s famous for its political value but offers little in the way of economic benefit. (Two experts on the subject argue it helps low-skilled workers who keep their jobs at the expense of others looking for work.) By contrast, education reform is one of the rare issues that could unite a cross-section of Republicans and Democrats. It would allow the president to build a bipartisan alliance while tackling his signature pitch on income inequality.
In reality, the White House’s rhetoric about income inequality is as much about politics as policy. Obama unveiled his first speech on the subject during the 2012 campaign—long after the Occupy Wall Street movement sprang up on the left—as a way to hit Mitt Romney for his plutocratic background. “The themes he laid out were tailor-made for a campaign,” authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann wrote in their campaign opus Double Down. Indeed, Obama rarely promotes his administration’s Race to the Top initiative incentivizing states to raise educational standards—he devoted just one sentence to it in his income inequality speech—because the program irks the party’s teachers-union allies.
The tougher challenge is to advance policies that address a major reason behind the growing educational gap—the fact that poorer children aren’t afforded the same educational opportunities as wealthier ones. There’s a path to closing the gap, focused more on increasing opportunity than equalizing outcomes. But it means the president and his progressive allies will have to make decisions to move beyond speeches and the minimum wage.