Transforming Children's Lives and our Nation's Future

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear professor and writer David L. Kirp speak on the topic, “Is Public Education Dead?” His answer was that, while our public schools nationally are, for the most part, not meeting the needs of the majority of our population, there are some schools (and school systems) that are serving students quite well; and we can learn from them to improve the educational experience for all.

With an extensive background in law, public policy, and education, Mr. Kirp has taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, served as the founding director of the Harvard Center on Law and Education, and is currently a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He writes for numerous publications and has authored several books, including Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives and America’s Future.

Professor Kirp believes that we have both the knowledge and the wherewithal to improve not only our schools, but also children’s lives and our nation’s economy. He says there is no secret, and that many of the success stories in schools are based on W. Edwards Deming’s theory of continuous improvement. However, the process of reform takes time and patience, both of which tend to be in short supply in our political landscape.

In the book Kids First, Kirp posits that the United States needs to adopt a new paradigm for how we think about kids. He refers to its underlying strategy as the Golden Rule: “Every child deserves what’s good enough for a child you love.” In this model, all children deserve to grow up in a nurturing environment that gives them a chance to learn, grow, and succeed, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds or the resources of their communities.

Kirp suggests five big ideas that would transform children’s experiences “from crib to college” and impact our nation’s future:

  • A parent support program for all new parents;

  • High-quality early childhood education;

  • Coordination between schools and communities to improve program offerings;

  • Mentors for those children who need access to a caring, stable adult;

  • And a nest egg for every child that could be used to help pay for college or start a career.

Each of these big ideas has been proven to be effective, will promote equity and decrease the achievement gap, and is a sound investment in our future.

In fact, according to Kirp, every aspect of this model is already happening in various places throughout our country. Every one of the items above has already attracted bipartisan support in Congress. If children’s advocates were to mobilize and coordinate efforts, putting aside their individual programmatic concerns and rallying behind this “Kids First” agenda that would enhance a range of opportunities for all children from crib to college, this vision could become a reality.

What would this Kids First agenda cost? Mr. Kirp estimates that the whole program could be underwritten for about $50 billion per year. That may sound like a lot, but it’s actually less than two percent of the $3.9 trillion federal budget. In fact, government spending on children’s programs has dropped to less than 8% of all federal spending, according to the First Focus Children’s Budget 2015.

The Kids Share 2012 report on federal expenditures found that the United States spends seven times more on the elderly than we do on our children. Its authors state that under current policies, beginning in 2017, “the federal government is projected to spend more on interest payments than on children.” Since most citizens agree that children are our future and that America’s success depends upon the success of our children, this seems shortsighted.

Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, states, “Since kids do not vote, we need an informed electorate that will translate its long-standing support for children into votes. This requires that advocates for children, including parents, grandparents, educators, etc., work together to build a grassroots movement to educate the public and demand from policymakers that they put forth a real policy agenda… that would improve child well-being and then hold those policymakers accountable for real results.”

We know how to eliminate the achievement gap. We know how to improve children’s lives for the better, providing support for families and a high quality education from birth through college for every child. We have the financial ability to make this vision a reality. We talk about how important children are, but we don’t always put our money where our mouths are. As David Kirp writes, “When the topic is children, Washington is often long on love and short on cash.”

We can change that. As voters, we need to demand more from our politicians. Although the benefits of a Kids First agenda might not be fully realized for fifteen to twenty years, longer than the life cycle of most political careers, that does not mean those benefits should be ignored. Our children, and our nation, deserve better. They are worth the investment.

This post was also published at GoLocalProv.

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