I took a comparative politics class in college. One day, early in the semester, we discussed the different incentives in capitalist and collectivist systems.
Here’s a way to think about this, the professor said. Right now, your grade is based on your effort and intelligence, but what if I awarded grades on a common basis — that is, your final mark would be the average of all grades in the class?
You would be working for each other this year, not just yourself.
Wow, we replied (we were hippies once, and young). Can we try that?
Yes. After signing an agreement with the dean, each individual grade became the grade we earned together.
The result was fascinating and instructive. You would think the students who struggled with the class might let others do the work to bring the average grade up.
The opposite was the case. The C students worked hard to improve, afraid of letting their classmates down.
At semester’s end, each student had contributed unequal labor, yet the outcome was equal for everyone.
Equality is the most difficult and slippery concept in politics and government.
A commitment to equality is embedded in our founding document, of course. Yet inequality remains a part of our laws and customs.
Gender discrimination remains a thorny issue in the military and in the civilian workplace. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation remains a bitterly divisive issue. Full racial equality is still elusive. Curfew laws reflect age bias.
Our tax structures are highly discriminatory. Farm property is taxed less than urban property. Investment income is treated differently than labor income. And so on.
The usual answer to obvious inequality is that America guarantees equal opportunity, not outcome. We start at the same line, then run as far as talent and effort can take us. But studies show that’s a myth. Children in poor neighborhoods face many more obstacles than their well-to-do counterparts.
Kansas lawmakers soon will write a new formula for school spending. Some have suggested the goal should be educational excellence, not equality.
It sounds compelling, but courts have said public education is a right, not a competition. If students in wealthy districts want excellence, students in poor neighborhoods should be given needed resources to seek an equal result, the judges have said.
An unequal effort aimed at providing equal results. Sounds like my college class. We all got a B’s that year, just above average. Kansas lawmakers might aim higher, seeking an A for every classroom in the state.