Thursday, June 02, 2011

There's A Program For That

We recently had some firsthand experience with the government-educational complex that highlights one of the reasons that our country has become trapped in a web of entitlements that slowly but surely sapping our economic vitality and spirit of innovation and growth. The State of Minnesota requires children to be tested before they enter kindergarten to ensure that they’re prepared for the rigors of ABCs and 123s. On the surface it seems like an innocuous enough idea and on face can be seen as a laudable effort to improve educational outcomes. It’s only when you stop and start really thinking about what this means that it raises concerns.

After learning of this requirement, my wife called to schedule an appointment so that our two oldest kids could be certified as OK by the imprimatur of the state. She was expecting to have to deal with a scheduling hassle in order to find a time to get our children tested. Instead, she was told that there were “plenty of open slots available” and that she could almost pick the day and time of her choosing. At first, she was relieved to hear this and happy that she could get this done without undue burden. But then she started thinking about how this abundance of open testing times could be possible. Either no one but us is actually following the requirement or there must be a lot of resources available to perform the testing. Given the unlikelihood of the former being true, it seems as if these resources were almost standing by the phone waiting for a call to commence to checking the children. Resources that were being paid by for the state. Resources that were being funded by our tax dollars.

When she took the kids in she was informed about what they would be tested on and how they would be evaluated. She was assured that if any deficiencies were found, there would plenty of “help” available to get the child back on the right track. Not surprisingly, our children were found to be just fine in all areas tested (including 100% percentile for cuteness). Whew, what a relief to know that the state approves of the job we’ve been doing as parents.

But what this process demonstrates is how programs that begin with the best intentions to serve specific and targeted groups who truly do need some assistance, almost invariably morph into larger programs with broader scopes and bulging budgets. All-day kindergarten was originally touted as a way to help disadvantaged children catch up to their peers before first grade. Now, it’s become an all-day day care option for middle and upper class parents. Their children don’t need to go to school all day, but it sure helps make the parents scheduling easier, not to mention saving a buck or two.

The same this is happening with this pre-school testing. I’m sure it was originally created to try to make sure that those children who came from a background where their parents either could or would not invest the time to teach them the basic things they needed for school would be spotted and could then be provided the assistance necessary to make up for what they had missed. Again, seems like a laudable goal. But because it’s become something that all parents are required to do, it’s become a feeder to get more and more children into government education programs at an earlier and earlier age.

I don’t believe there’s any nefarious intent here. I’m sure the people who plan and run these programs have all the best intentions about helping children. But the way that government works means that the more kids you get into these programs—the more kids you’re trying to help—the more the program will be viewed as a success and the more support and funding it will receive. And with so many middle and upper class parents especially sensitive to any indication that their children might not be keeping up their peers today, it means that there’s a large pool of potential children that can be brought into the system.

In that regard, putting the testing requirement in place and making it relatively easy for parents to get their tots tested makes all the sense in the world for those who run these programs. The more Mikes from Minnetonka and Wendys from Woodbury that you bring in (and the earlier the better) the more you make their parents feel as if they’re invested in it. Whether Mike is really ADHD or just acting like a normal boy doesn’t matter. There’s a program to help him and damnit it must be funded. Whether Wendy not being able to pronounce certain sounds means she needs a speech therapist or if it’s just something she would naturally grow out of doesn’t matter. She’s in the system now mister and you just try to tell her parents that taxes shouldn’t be raised to support it.

This is just a small example of the larger problem that we face as a country. Programs that were once designed to assist the poor, the sick, or the elderly have systematically been expanded to a larger and larger group of constituents until we’ve reached a point where almost all of us are now part of some government assistance plan or program. Once you are one of the beneficiaries and conduct your affairs accordingly, it becomes tough to think about giving it up. Which is why polls consistently show that while Americans favor cutting government spending, they don’t favor cutting the programs that they benefit from.

This is the web that we find ourselves caught in. And every new program or expansion of existing programs only serves to further entangle us and make an eventual extraction—if it’s even possible at this point—more and more difficult. We face a situation where maintaining the size of the government pie is unsustainable, yet most Americans seem unwilling to part with any part of their piece of it. This is cause for no small amount of despair for those of us who see little hope of resolution prior to the country reaching a crisis point. I wonder if there’s a program for that...