I’m coming to a conclusion as I age: Mathematics, political behavior and plain common sense all demonstrate that extremes generally don’t accurately reflect long-term reality.
When you apply this notion to politics, it suggests that neither hard-right Tea Partiers nor flaming left liberals are likely to dominate our political system – or provide sensible answers. It’s the generally centrist “sanity caucus” that most times winds up calling the shots.
Nationally, we are apt to see people and candidates divide along these lines during next year’s presidential campaign. One example: As a rough generalization, right-wingers think people who fall behind in things like academic performance or income should be trying harder and doing better, and deserve punishment for not doing so. Those on the left generally think people on the bottom can’t be helped except by redistributing resources to them.
But centrists reason that the best way to help people and society as a whole is by investing in human capital ‒ things like access to early childhood and university education ‒ which increase individual opportunity for all.
Essentially, it comes down to the old proverb about how best to help a starving man at the river bank: You can tell him to stop complaining, give him a fish ‒ or give him a fishing rod and teach him how to use it. Put that way, the answer becomes pretty clear.
Here’s how this divide works when it comes to one public policy debate in Michigan today. Education experts have found that adequate reading progress by third grade is a very accurate predictor of a student’s future success – or lack of it.
When conservatives in the legislature see third graders failing to read at grade level, their preferred solution is often to hold them back an extra year. When liberal lawmakers see reading failures, they talk about relieving poverty and increasing spending on schools.
But legislators actually serious about doing something to actually improve this key benchmark propose finding ways now to allocate extra resources to help kids who are struggling.
I saw again how true this is last week, when I attended a meeting in Washington, D.C. put on by the Alliance for Early Success, a nonprofit that advocates “to improve state policies for children, starting at birth and continuing through age eight.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that the Alliance is a third-party investor supporting the Center for Michigan’s work on pre-kindergarten education programs.
I have to say I felt a little like a Midwestern hayseed, sitting at a big table in Washington’s Hay-Adams Hotel surrounded by big-time national experts like Kathleen Sebelius, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Ralph Smith, senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and, on the phone, Frank Luntz, who works mainly for Republicans and is one of the nation’s most influential pollsters and phrase-makers.
But I am happy to report that what emerged over an intense afternoon wasn’t just abstract research findings or elaborate child development theory, but the plain fact that Michigan is now recognized as a national leader in early education for poor and vulnerable four year-olds. Over the past two years, our Great Start Readiness Program has received more increased public support than comparable programs in any other state.
That’s a remarkable milestone, a compliment to the far-sightedness of our political system in this respect, a shared vision that recognizes that the best way to achieve equal opportunity and a thriving and healthy economy is to invest resources in human capital, increased productivity and individual achievement.
But there’s much more to be done. There’s compelling evidence that investing in infants all the way through age eight brings disproportionately high returns. The Alliance for Early Success is struggling toward finding the most successful national policy for investment in infants and young children, something they hope to arrive at by using the states as experimental laboratories.
Using Frank Luntz’s language, such a policy needs to be “efficient, effective and accountable.” It needs to recognize that families as a whole – parents, grandparents and children – must be in control because they are the essential touchstones for the work to be done. The greatest risk to such a policy is to have it become entangled in partisan disputes, whether in state legislatures or the U.S. Congress. It must avoid the besetting bureaucratic sin of splitting the world into individual silos of programs and money, each infested by people competing for influence and control.
What everyone needs to remember is that the ultimate objective is to achieve equal opportunity for every child to grow, thrive and prosper to the best of their abilities and efforts. And to recognize that this is the logical, practical and responsible way to achieve healthy families, healthy communities and a healthy country.
By the afternoon’s end, most people in the room agreed such a program will require developing a series of aspirational partnerships, facilitated by but not controlled by government.
These partnerships should be based on common sense understandings of how children develop and how investments in the very young are bound to yield the greatest return.
You might say it all comes back to the starving man on the river bank. Don’t deny him a fishing rod. Don’t just give him a fish. But provide him with tools and lessons in casting a fly.