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David Kirp

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The Public Equivalent of Love

Posted: 10/18/11 05:58 PM ET

On October 19th, as the Senate HELP Committee dives into mark-up of the long awaited overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, one group of children's advocates will try to frame education reform through the tight focus of educational outcomes and opportunity for students in foster care.

Using the latest in webcasting technology, two organizations -- Fostering Media Connections and the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute -- will create a "National Conversation" in which teachers and students In California, researchers in Illinois and policymakers in Washington, D.C. discuss hurdles and strategies in improving educational outcomes for students in foster care.

In addition, the organizers will release an "Action Guide" laden with research, legislative history, on-the-ground journalistic accounts and a broad range of recommendations. I was asked to write the foreword, which I offer to you as a window into the reasonable "sea change" we need for this country. The education of students in foster care may just be the "test case" that livens the public's understanding of what must be done for all students.

In the percussive and protracted debate over the federal budget -- a debate, really, about our nation's priorities and values -- one group has gone entirely ignored: children. There's no disputing that America's capacity to compete in the global economy and to govern itself wisely is in the hands of our youths -- no disputing either the baby-kissing love that politicians bestow on them. But budgets speak louder than campaign rhetoric, and, when it comes to spending money on the young, we fall woefully short. The politicians' hoary adage still holds true: kids don't matter because kids don't vote.

The statistics tell the tale. Although the United States is the wealthiest nation in the world, a 2009 study of 30 countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that the child-poverty rate in this country is twice the OECD average. We spend a third less than the OECD average on young children, we post the highest child-mortality rates, and the average educational achievement of an American youngster is the seventh-worst. In the policy version of eating the seed corn, the old are taking money, freedom, and opportunity from the young. Washington spends less than $3,000 for each child -- and seven times more on a senior citizen.

Despite all the "we love kids" sentimentality, matters keep getting worse. Although the 2009 stimulus package temporarily boosted federal support for children, those funds have run almost run out. Without that stimulus money, spending on young people would be less than 8 percent of the federal budget, and the story in the states is at least as bad. Those figures translate into laid-off teachers, cutbacks in after-school and summer programs, fewer dollars for pre-kindergarten, escalating college tuition and inadequate access to health care. And unless there's an about-face, this disinvestment in the young will accelerate. "Kids' Share 2008," a study by the Urban Institute, estimates that from 2007 to 2018, the slice of the gross domestic product devoted to children will fall by 13 percent. The current fixation with deficit reduction makes those projections look optimistic. Meanwhile, the number of children living in poverty keeps climbing. In 2010, 16.4 million children, or 22.0 percent, were poor--that's nearly 50 percent more than the population as a whole.

The rest of us also pay dearly for this shortsightedness. As Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz demonstrate in The Race Between Education and Technology , our global edge can largely be explained by the fact that during much of the 20th century, the United States had a thirty-five-year lead over other industrialized countries in expanding higher education. But this historic advantage has evaporated since 1970, as other nations have sprinted past us in education, as well as in an array of supports that enable youngsters to take full advantage of the education that's available to them.

Whether motivated by social justice or enlightened self-interest, this un-benign neglect is policy perversity. A mountain of research by geneticists, neuroscientists, child psychologists, and economists converges on the proposition that investing in the future of children yields handsome long-term gains for youths, in happier and more successful lives, as well as for the rest of us, in greater prosperity and a livelier democracy. Economists calibrate the public benefits of a good parent-support program as nearly three times higher than the costs. For an exemplary preschool, the lifetime return on the dollar to individuals and society can run as high as 17-to-1.

We need a sea change in how we think about all children -- a kids-first approach. The guiding principle is as simple, and as powerful, as the Golden Rule;: Every child deserves what's good enough for a child you love.

All children deserve the kind of help that gives them their best chance to learn and grow, because all of them can benefit from the chance to acquire the skills and resiliency necessary to meet the challenges that life invariably throws at them. But those at the bottom of the ladder fare the worst. And as this report shows, few youngsters are worse off than those in foster care. How a nation treats its most vulnerable members reveals a lot about its character, and it's not a pretty picture.

In my recent book, Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives and America's Future, I propose that we invest in five potential game-changers for all kids -- a system of demonstrably effective cradle-to-college supports that won't break the bank:

  • Give new parents strong support;
  • Provide high-quality early education;
  • Link academically rigorous schools and communities to improve what both offer kids;
  • Provide mentors to youngsters who'd benefit from a stable, caring adult in their lives; and,
  • Start youngsters off with a nest egg that helps pay for college or start a career.

These policies would improve every youngster's chances of success. They would promote fairness as well as efficiency. They've been proven to work in even the grimmest circumstances. They can be put in place on a wide scale. They give concrete meaning to our shared sense of stewardship for the next generation. They're also affordable -- my back-of-the-envelope calculation, as detailed in Kids First, is that these initiatives would increase total federal spending on children to $265.9 billion in fiscal year 2011, by about $40 billion, or 15 percent. Because these ideas represent wise investments, they can keep America competitive. They are joined to one another, generating important synergies. They add up to one big idea: making the array of supports that kids need as commonly available as kindergarten, and turning cradle-to-college support into something that American families take as much for granted as baby checkups. You might think of it as the public equivalent of love.

The kids-first strategy would have an especially powerful impact on the lives of foster children. Even more than most youngsters, they need the solid cognitive, social and emotional foundation that good early education delivers. Because their lives are so much in flux, they can benefit greatly from having caring and stable adults -- champions -- in their lives. Because they can't count on their own families to pay the bills, they need a savings account, opened when they're young, to build their own lives.

The school stands at the center of any kid's life. For foster kids, who are too often bounced around from place to place, schools can be islands of stability in their turbulent lives. Like other youngsters, foster children would thrive in high-expectations schools, not just the traditional 8AM-3PM education in reading and math but caring institutions that pay attention to the rest of their lives as well. Linking schools with the resources of their communities means that doctors and dentists are readily available, and that's critical for a population that has an unacceptably high incidence of untreated dental and vision problems. It also means that there's something of value -- sports, arts, academic enrichment -- going on before and after school, and during summers.

Finally, offering families access to good parenting programs would lower the incidence of parent abuse and neglect -- the very factors that push children into the foster care system. Teaching parents how to do their very best has been shown to reduce the foster care problem by reducing the number of kids who wind up in the system.

This isn't a Democratic or Republican agenda, for public backing of children's issues crosses partisan lines. When polled, voters put youngsters high on the list of public priorities and say they'd be willing to spend more of their own money to give them what they need. But no policy agenda, however sound, will ever be implemented without a powerful political push.

Early education keeps growing, even as other youth initiatives have shrunk, because sophisticated advocates have been able to draw on a rich body of evidence from neuroscience, economics and developmental psychology that has been made user-friendly by national foundations; at least as important, the movement has enlisted unlikely allies, including the Business Roundtable and Fight Crime, Invest in Kids, a national organization of police chiefs and district attorneys.

Rescuing Forgotten Futures: an action guide to the improvements everyone can make to help foster youth succeed in school joins sound policy prescriptions with a blueprint for how we can achieve those prescriptions -- how, at the national, state and local levels, we can mobilize to give foster kids, who have had it rough in their young lives, a decent shot at success. Isn't that the least they deserve?

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David L. Kirp, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California-Berkeley, is the author of Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Improving the Lives of Children and America's Future. He served on the Presidential Transition Team in 2008-2009.