Many people agree that education is an important good. Education is valuable, people claim, because it is a pathway to knowledge, to well-paid work, to full membership in political society and to flourishing. Because so much is at stake when it comes to educational opportunities we must ensure that such opportunities are distributed fairly, but what will that look like?
Two competing views about how to distribute educational opportunities have emerged. The first demands equality in the distribution of educational opportunities. These views may take the shape of one of the conceptions above or they may insist on equal educational outcomes or equal per pupil funding. Other views draw on a distinct distributive idea. They hold that education’s only or primary goal is to ensure an adequate education, which is consistent with unequal achievement and unequal per pupil funding. Some have held that once an education is adequate to equip a child with certain basic skills, inequality is not objectionable. Many accounts of adequacy have been defended, some of which are more inspired by ideals of social equality than others.
Debates about this topic concern the best account of adequacy in education and the question of whether any account of adequacy can specify a desirable account of educational justice when many of the benefits of education are positional, that is, they rely on one’s position relative to others with respect to education and not on how well educated that person is, whether badly or very well educated. The meritocratic distribution of jobs, where the most qualified candidate is appointed, ensures that positionality is decisive in many cases. Being better qualified than any other applicant, whether well qualified, very well qualified or poorly qualified, is what is decisive. Overlooking this fact is thought to be a flaw of adequacy approaches, but more sophisticated adequacy approaches attempt to address this issue. However, it is important to note that not all of the reasons we have to care about education are positional. For example, it may not matter whether some have more civic education than others so long as each has enough. Balancing concern for positionality and adequacy is a key aspect of this debate.