Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Limits of "Good Intentions"

Three of my Devereux friends now know to be careful about what you say to me at dinner, or else it could wind up in a column. The contrast between what it would take to fix Social Security -- all it requires is passing legislation, and it's a problem we don't face for decades -- as opposed to fixing urban schools -- which takes people, not concepts, and is happening right now -- is staggering. And which one takes political "courage" again?

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 9, 2007

I was talking with a behavioral health advocate who’s worked with troubled children for years. She could barely contain her excitement over new opportunities to change lives and improve communities. It's an exciting new program that provides emotional support to at-risk kids in some of our nation's most troubled urban school systems.

Research shows early intervention with these "positive emotional support" programs can prevent serious, more expensive problems later. The benefits go beyond helping the troubled kids; teachers using PES techniques become better at controlling the classroom, so they can spend more time teaching the entire class.

Early intervention has an economic benefit, too, which she planned to show to business leaders to get their support. Our economic future depends on local schools providing quality employees.

People talk about a Social Security "crisis," which really isn’t a crisis. If -- and that’s a big if -- the worst-case projections prove correct, minor tweaks can close any shortfall. It'll take a lot more effort to ensure we’re educating adequately tomorrow’s workers (who will pay for benefits for us retiring boomers).

Once the business community sees the data, said my friend, they’d become the biggest boosters for PES and early intervention. At which point, she lost me.

I recall too clearly how over a decade ago, the Phoenix business community rallied behind "Success by Six," a collection of early intervention programs providing similar support to at-risk kids before they fell into the juvenile or adult correction systems. Support of "Success by Six" became a test of moral seriousness, one that everybody -- political candidates and business leaders alike -- had to meet.

And it worked. With great fanfare, GOP Gov. Fife Symington and the Legislature adopted basically the entire program. Hooray!

But previously-announced tax cuts took effect, the economy cooled, and revenues didn’t meet expectations. It was easy funding new programs during flush times, but once money got tight, enthusiasm failed. Once the business community had to put "skin in the game" -- risking their real priorities, like tax cuts, to fund investments in kids -- then moral seriousness didn't matter so much.

People eagerly support pilot projects, hoping that some new paradigm revolutionizes education or welfare. The pilot project shows promise, so it should rolled out systemically, which requires serious money (i.e., taxes). However, business leaders have moved on to the next job or community, or are distracted by a different new shiny pilot program, uninterested in dull-as-dishwater institutionalization and funding.

It may be ideological, too. U.S. automakers should be screaming for national health care. They can make quality cars, but if they have to pay thousands per vehicle in employee and retiree health care costs, how can they compete with manufacturers in Japan, who don't? But they can't bring themselves to do it. They make vague statements of principles that can be deciphered as favoring a national solution, but nothing that anyone who watches (or writes for) Fox News would see as supporting "socialized medicine."

A big-deal business lobbyist I knew once called me for a friend with an obscure federal appointment obtained during the first Bush administration who wanted reappointment by President Clinton. This was for such an obscure position that I didn't know it was coming open. I told the lobbyist I'd be happy to call the administration as a favor.

The lobbyist immediately froze. No, he made absolutely clear, he wasn’t asking for a favor. He wanted me to support his friend only if it could be done for free -- like if I happened to be calling the White House anyway. It wasn’t a favor, which I might expect to have reciprocated.

Which is what I foresee happening with the data showing how cost-effective positive emotional support programs are in schools. The business community can support it, right up to the point where they have to put something real on the line. Hey, if our heart’s in the right place, leave our wallet alone. After all, who needs to give at the office, when instead you can feel at the office?

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