Can economic development & social justice coexist?

A friend asked, “Can economic development and social justice be achieved simultaneously?”  I think the answer is, “Yes, they always develop together but are often in conflict.” 

 This is the central question of the American experiment.  We each contemplate the opportunity-equity dialectic when we vote (e.g., to what extent does a tax cut expand opportunity at the expense of equity?).  The two-party system is organized around this American paradox.  It’s a long standing societal tension dating, in part, to the Judeo-Christian conception of a God that embodies justice and mercy—it’s hard to exhibit one universally much less both simultaneously.  American certainly doesn’t have it right but, arguably, careens slowly in that direction. 

My ancestors came to this county 130 years ago for freedom and opportunity.  Their sense of charity was worked out through their church and private lives.  They expected little from the government in the way of public goods.  As opportunity and wealth expanded, the conception of the common good expanded to incorporate highways, public safety, a global military presence, welfare, museums, libraries, and public schools.  Opportunity and ingenuity paved the way for these social advances.  I believe that remains true today. 

America remains the land of opportunity.  It’s still the easiest place to accumulate wealth on the planet.  While the floor has been lifted, the ceiling has been blown away.  Income gaps are enormous, far larger than in any other country, keeping the opportunity-equity question pertinent (especially when combined with globalization, immigration, etc). 

Exacerbating these gaps is the unfortunate relationship between the quality of public services and community wealth.  We’ve created universal access to elementary and secondary education but it simply replicates social class.  School staffing and facilities reflect wealth not need.  This is morally wrong, unproductive, and undemocratic.  Here’s three reasons why:

·      Education is economic development.  It’s increasingly important, for individuals and communities, that more students leave high school ready for further and higher education

·      Education is social justice.  As perhaps the most important pubic good, it’s vital that quality education be provided to the least advantaged to satisfy any notion of distributed justice

·      Education is civil society. If our children are to cope politically with the difficult and interrelated problems they’ll inherit, it will be increasingly important that the polity be educated and engaged in civil society. 

We all answer this question every time we vote.  Some of us answer the question by waking up everyday and trying to make schools better.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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