May 23, 2010

If the series did not work for poor children, the entire project would fail.
- Gerald S. Lesser, Professor of Education and Developmental Psychology, writing about the goals of Sesame Street

Much of modern policy has been driven by self interest: some of it enlightened (as far as pragmatism and long-term employment will allow), most of it pragmatic. In a democratic system, careers are gained and lost upon the successful courting of large voting blocs.

Many people who do not personally need a service do not see why they should pay for that service. Policy driven by this philosophy will tend to erode every service which is not used by just about every voter. Few argue that a military should be government (tax)-funded: but services such as education, medical assistance (or specific medical procedures), and publicly-funded television and radio foster constant debate. Those without children or who send their children to privately-funded schools often don't see why they should additionally subsidise public education, when they personally make no use of it.

The most common outcome is the drive to keep tax dollars local, even to the point of funding such public services as public education county by county: with the expected resulting variances in education quality. It may also result in tax breaks for those not using the service. This approach increases the proportional tax burden on those who are left, which in turn also impacts on overall quality and sets in motion a positive feedback loop: as publicly-funded quality falls, more of those people who are able will pull their children from public systems, their (higher) taxes will no longer fund those public systems, and quality will fall further. If the loop is not interrupted, the end result will be that only children from families too poor to afford publicly-funded education will be left in an educational system, funded solely by the taxes from the poorest of the poor.

On the other side of the coin, few argue against roads being government-funded, yet those living in remote areas not serviced by all-season roads or even by roads at all are still required to pay for roads through their taxes. Arizona's current anti illegal immigrant legislation is also a case in point. The relevant issue to most Arizona taxpayers is not which legal rights should be bent or outright broken in trying to combat illegal immigration -- for in the eyes of many United States taxpayers, those who are not United States citizens or legally landed aliens should not be entitled to United States legal rights -- but that the federal government has been shirking its responsibility in this area, placing a disproportionate burden on Arizona and thus forcing Arizona to take (and pay for) action. On that basis, a significant number of the residents of other states agree with Arizona's choice. If an individual state's perceived economic burden cannot be broadly shared, then the only remaining relevant question becomes one of states' rights vs. federalism.

(One has long wondered why legal immigration limits should exist at all, especially in countries which believe in the possibility of infinite growth of wealth; and the corollary question of why citizenship holds no obligations whatsoever in non compulsory service countries, only the expectation of certain rights. Paying taxes is not specific to citizenship: in fact, citizens get a tax break. Is citizenship really nothing more than a lottery of birth to determine future benefits? But more on this later.)

Increasingly common -- and thus relevant to votes -- is the attitude that if a service is not personally needed, the service is not generally needed. For people holding this attitude, any public funding at all for services which are not personally used is an affront. Few, still, are the country leaders who claim openly that they do not watch their country's public television station: but after Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper's proud statement that he does not watch the CBC, more might be coming out of the woodwork.

Within this philosophy, it makes no difference that some of the services used only by a few may also be lifelines to those few. Although the education example above is typical, it also makes no difference within this philosophy whether services are disproportionately needed by richer or poorer people. Social pressure to publicly fund a service tends to be less with services needed more by middle/higher income earners, such as autism behavioural therapies: yet these costs may be just as difficult for these families to bear individually as basic medical services and even basic housing needs for poorer families.

These are rationing choices, differing only in priority and degree. All societies make them. Sometimes the limits are set by individual or small community resources: which is why rural health care practitioners may care more, but tend to have fewer medical resources and are often more poorly funded than their big city counterparts. Where the societal policy prioritises universal access but limits funding, rationing is achieved by increasing waiting times to access the service -- not deliberately, but as a natural consequence of universal access to limited services and equipment.

At the heart of all rationing choices are two tenets: budgets are limited; and even services which are often publicly funded, whether in part or in whole, cannot and maybe should not be accessible to every person/legal alien/citizen (except, perhaps, in theory).

Yet children -- all children, from all walks of education -- will become the next generation upon whom all of us will depend. A society which denies a significant percentage of its children the opportunity to develop their gifts as far as they can be developed is a doomed society.

Yet abstract reasoning means nothing on a pragmatic level. What is needed is a personal reason for those in power to start valuing public education again: to go beyond basic questions of standardised testing and job-relevant skillsets to find out and do what is needed on a broader level.

Suppose, just for a moment, that all public servants, elected and appointed, should be required to send their children to publicly funded schools. It is not so much of a stretch. All kinds of professions in positions of trust are already subject to specific limits and restrictions as a condition of employment, restrictions which can go as far as complete loss of privacy. Were publicly-funded schooling to become a standard requirement for the children of all persons paid from the public coffers, how do you suppose priorities in education might change?

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