On Friday, October 4th, Justice Goodwin Liu of the California Supreme Court came to speak about equal educational opportunity. Justice Liu noted that, since becoming a judge, his ability to comment on the law has become more limited because he cannot comment on issues that might end up in his courtroom, and therefore he focused on distributive justice and the impact it can have on K-12 education. The speech focused on a Rawlsian notion of a meritocracy in which individuals with the same level of talent and motivation should have the same prospects of success regardless of their background.
Justice Liu noted a number of limitations with this theory of meritocratic equality. First, we as a society are largely unconcerned with the inequalities that exist between schools in the top third and are far more worried about inequalities between the top and bottom thirds, even though the differences at the top may be more substantial. We care about everyone having adequate resources more than we care about providing resources strictly based on merit. Second, meritocratic equality leaves us without a clear idea of how disparate the prospects of success should be. Should those with substantially greater talent receive vastly superior outcomes or only marginally superior ones? Meritocratic equality does not say. Third, there is a limitation when we discuss talent because talent can be composed of both innate talents and developed talents and it is difficult to distinguish them and measure them separately, if that is our objective.
All of these limitations should cause us to conclude that meritocratic equality, while important, is often insufficient to deal with the problems of our education system. We must look to see what other values, like democratic equality (where we simply want to give everyone identical opportunities), are present in our decision-making process and, if these are the correct values, whether they are being balanced in an appropriate and effective way.