TPM Cafe: Opinion

Why Local Governments Fail

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AP Photo / Mark Lennihan

Still, while there’s no question that Canada and others building Promise Neighborhoods around the country are doing enormously powerful work, I came away wondering if they are simply doing the best they can with a broken system.

Start with the idea: the Harlem Children’s Zone addresses poverty, community revitalization, and long-term educational success with cradle-to-career social services in a 97-block section of Harlem. Their success inspired the Obama Administration’s Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, which offers grants to replicate this model in communities around the country.

As I listened to Canada and others discuss how (and why) this “wraparound” approach to social services works, I heard two core themes: 1) it relies on steady, substantial funding, but also 2) it ultimately succeeds or fails on organizational grounds. Part of what makes the Promise Neighborhood model so intuitively appealing is that it aims to take a bunch of patchwork social services, public funding streams, private philanthropy, and NGO work and combine them into a reliable, straightforward set of supports that combat poverty in a coordinated way.

Makes sense, right? We know that persistent, concentrated poverty affects a host of health metrics and educational outcomes for parents and their children. Children’s development is so profoundly and negatively affected by the strains of growing up in poverty, that researchers now refer to it as “toxic stress.” The sustained pressure of living poverty in the early years affects children’s attention span and emotional self-discipline. In the United States, we generally respond to these challenges by assigning low-income students to our worst-funded and least-effective teachers and schools—is it any wonder that we see wide, persistent achievement gaps between students from low-income families and their wealthier peers?

Against that backdrop, surely it’s obvious that improving their life outcomes requires addressing these—and all poverty-related—challenges in tandem. We shouldn’t expect anti-poverty programs to improve children’s school achievement on their own, just as we shouldn’t expect education reforms to eliminate or fully overcome the structural elements of child poverty. These challenges are interwoven—it’s obvious that an effective policy response needs to tackle them in tandem.

Promise Neighborhoods are a natural response to that analysis of the situation. And yet, if you think about it, they’re perhaps best understood as a makeshift response to our ludicrously complicated approach to education and other basic health services. Our system leaves considerable—but inconsistent—policymaking authority to local and state authorities means that we have a hard time addressing complicated problems in a coordinated way.

When other developed countries want to rework part of their education system, they make the big, guiding decisions at the national level, budget some funds, and then implement a coordinated plan. Consider, for instance, the famous Finnish education system: their recent success on international assessments was driven by centralized reforms to their teacher training programs and national academic curriculum (which they’re now reworking again). Consider further, that Finland has implemented high national tax rates and targeted programs to drive their child poverty rates under 4 percent (and other centralized anti-poverty efforts get similarly good results). These systems work in tandem because they’re both established as elements of a broader system addressing poverty and educational equity.

By comparison, when we want to reform part of our education system here in the United States, we engage a bizarre, Rube Goldberg machine. First the feds pass some money to the states, provided that the states agree to use it and pass it to local agencies with certain conditions. This then commits the locals to passing it out to schools in a certain manner, and so on. Here’s an example of the chaos of American public education: the federal government’s largest early education investment is Head Start. It’s administered by local organizations supported by direct federal grants. Meanwhile, many states run their own public pre-K programs that serve three- and four-year-olds. These take a number of forms, but generally involve state funding passing through local school districts.

In recent years, policymakers have begun “blending” these funding streams to unify various local, state, and federal early education dollars. It’s been hailed as a “revolution” in education reform. But if you think about it, it’s an idea that only seems brilliant in contrast to the piecemeal confusion that it replaced. It’s less clumsy than our panoplied assortment of early education programs, but it’s hardly a model of efficiency. That’s because blending the funds means that all pre-K providers answer to the sometimes-overlapping, sometimes-not strings attached to all of the funding streams involved.

It doesn’t take much imagination to work out that our system’s kludgy design is a large part of why we spend more per student than any other developed nation—and get relatively unimpressive results. This is just one example, of course. Our anti-poverty programs and social services, limited as they are, often suffer from similar confusions. And, by the way, our child poverty rate approaches 25 percent.

All of which is not to say that the Promise Neighborhoods movement is somehow confused or a failure. Rather, it’s to point out that it’s a natural response to the United States’ failure to get serious about addressing poverty in any kind of coordinated way.