Summary: The President’s State of the Union message unexpectedly highlighted early childhood intervention, and has stimulated further discussion of the issue. Is there a whiff of bipartisanship in the air?
In my post of February 5 I displayed my pessimism that the political culture would ever get it right, and invest more heavily in early childhood education and intervention, specifically for kids of low income families. Without such strategy, the current bifurcation of society into the haves and have nots will intensify rather than be remedied, and the myth of American social and economic mobility will fade to a rigidity common to ossified cultures elsewhere in the world.
Imagine my surprise when President Obama shortly after my post promoted early childhood intervention in the State of the Union message. I resist the urge to claim responsibility!
More likely than my influence, and not very likely, is a conspiracy via the media to hoist trial balloons for the president by articles in the days before with discussions of early intervention. Mr. Nicholas Kristof, Mr. Jerry Large, the two gentlemen to whose thoughts I responded in my own post, by this theory must be tuned in to frequencies the rest of us do not detect. In fact, perhaps there are subtle leaks in the nation’s capital as the State of the Union looms that prominent columnists such as Mr. Kristol turn to advantage. More likely, there is no such conspiracy after all, only buzz in the bubble that is the beltway; that which is perfectly random prevails.
More to the point, the president’s remarks have elicited conversation that puts the question more prominently among the many social and economic issues facing the country. In the days subsequent to the president’s address E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, among others, took note.
Dionne (“Republicans as Problem Solvers”, Seattle Times February 19) noted that Republican governors of Alabama and Michigan had recently proposed preschool funding in their own states, presumably because they have read the same research available to all that point to early childhood interventions as a key not only to social mobility, but by extension to expanded economic prospects via education for those in lower economic classes. And that is good for an economy that will otherwise struggle with the limited prospects of these same children. That which arguably strengthens the economy is traditionally a Republican concern.
Mobility in this culture has been a foundation of American exceptionalism, particularly embraced by conservative forces. Arguably, and in an ironic twist, this same mobility has been stymied by the reluctance of those same forces to partner with efforts to level the playing field for low income kids, all on the altar of cutting back the influence and exchequer of the federal government.
Dionne voices the wishes of many voters that initiatives such as those of the governors of Alabama and Michigan become the stuff of bipartisan action, but acknowledges the need for more moderate Republicans to dodge the tea party and partake in the creation of proactive social policy. On this the Oscar night on which I write, the stuff only of dreams, I hope not.
According to Brooks, the Obama administration intends to partner with creative initiatives within states which promote educational readiness among children of poor families (The Seattle Times, February 17). The federal government would match state funds in exchange for pledges of scientific rigor and evaluation of results. The states would become data driven labs for promising experiments that address the typical school ready deficits of children of lower income families. He acknowledges there is a lot we don’t know about how to rectify these deficits; we know clearly, however, they represent both personal prisons for individual kids and economic decline for the larger culture.
One caveat. Early intervention should mean early, as in near birth, or even prenatal. It is not an accident that the folks of the Harlem Children’s Zone seek out and work with mothers who still carry their child in the womb, and follow them in the newborn’s early years. To wait until, say, four years old, is to encounter already dysfunctional psychological templates.
Brooks clearly gets it, he a moderate Republican voice, as will others, politicians of his persuasion, though too much silent in their fear of right wing ballot retribution. Brooks writing of kids from less advantaged homes:
“Their vocabularies are tiny. They can’t regulate their emotions. When they get to kindergarten they’ve never been read a book, so they don’t know the difference between the front cover and the back cover.”
Further, he acknowledges “this is rude to say…..but millions of parents don’t have the means, the skill or in some cases, the interest in building their children’s future. Early childhood education is about building structures so both parents and children learn practical life skills….” and, he adds, it is about learning the habits of organized individuals and the psychological pathways to achievement.
This comprehensive federal government strategy from the Obama folks models a collaborative effort; it acknowledges state vitality within federalism, and recognizes the strength of a multiplicity of approaches within a rigorous social science research network to problems for which we lack too many definitive answers.
One hopes that the wise retreat from excessively top down federal education policies will find echo in how states relate to school districts, school districts to schools and their principals, and finally to relationship with the teachers who, after all, are the ones who will do it.
In the current political climate, it may be difficult for Obama’s political rivals to acknowledge the conservative bent of this initiative. Yes, the direction represents federal policy, but of a vector shared substantially by the states, and a policy that devolves broad power and decision making to the states, as though transmuting the flat, static, undifferentiated animus toward government by the far right into a positive, constructive interpretation of the more local control advocated in the Reagan era.
It seems to me there is something to like in this platform for moderately conservative thinkers. Could bipartisanship grow from this soil?
Local solutions to locally unique sets of problems. Positive results within states will inform further experiment across the states. Measure outcomes, learn from the data.
The model may save the federal government cash at a time when a stubborn minority of the population votes resolutely to shrink the size of the federal budget. The raising of money, as well as more responsibility for creativity, will also have to come from the states, but it will be for their own flesh and blood kids, which will make more urgent the task. We hope.