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Putting People First Means Connecting Education to Other Services

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Government fails when our schools fail ... [E]ducation today is more than the key to climbing the ladder of economic opportunity; it is an imperative for our nation.
--from Putting People First, by Bill Clinton and Al Gore

President Clinton and his Cabinet have a unique opportunity to revitalize education as the engine of our democracy. But, to do so, they must look holistically at children and families, use the federal bully pulpit to provide leadership, and then move beyond rhetoric to tackle the hard work of making the current federal patchwork of education, health, social-service, food, housing, training, and income programs more coherent and effective.

Mr. Clinton knows that a child who needs glasses and cannot see the blackboard will not be a good learner. A child who is hungry lacks the concentration to be a top student. A child who is homeless will have difficulty doing homework, if, indeed, that child is in school at all. A child who lives among drugs and violence at night is ill-prepared to flourish academically during the day. And a child who doesn't learn today won't earn tomorrow.

All families have multiple needs and the number of families that need a helping hand is increasing. More than two-thirds of children had working mothers in 1990, compared with 55 percent a decade earlier. The figures are almost as high for women with children under age 6: Sixty percent were in the paid workforce, up from 46 percent 10 years before. Further, more than 20 percent of U.S. children live in poverty, including close to half of female-headed families. Poverty is not just a core-city issue: Well over half of low-income children live in rural and suburban areas.

A variety of programs help low-income families. For example, a family of three (a mother and two children) with a poverty-level income of $10,000 might well need help from a dozen different federal programs. In the education arena, the children could receive supplementary educational services through Chapter 1. In other arenas, the family would also be likely to qualify for:

  • Coupons to buy food through the Food Stamps program,
  • A place in public housing or vouchers toward rent,
  • Help finding a better job through the Job Training Partnership Act,
  • Health services through Medicaid, and
  • Tax refunds available to the working poor.

Children without food, shelter, health, or basic income are set up for educational failure. Yet the federal programs that address these needs are scattered among nine different Congressional committees and six different departments of the executive branch (the Departments of Education, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Treasury).

Making sense out of the Byzantine eligibility requirements and administrative quirks of each of these programs is a management nightmare for individual families and communities.

It is why the Institute for Educational Leadership recently launched the Policy Exchange to provide a forum for policymakers to explore collaborative approaches. And, more importantly, it is a critical policy challenge to President Clinton and his Cabinet.

Coordinating health and social services so that children can learn is a special concern of Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. Of course, schools cannot--and should not--do it all. But he learned as Governor of South Carolina that piecemeal approaches to the inter-related problems facing families produce piecemeal results.

States from Secretary Riley's own South Carolina to Kentucky and Oregon are already experimenting with ways to put educational reform in the context of all of the needs of children, not just the three R's. And communities from Savannah to San Diego and Tucson are struggling to make the federal and state hodgepodge of programmatic pieces fit together.

These grassroots efforts have shown that, to be effective, services need to come to people. This means focussing on where people work, where they live, and especially where children go to school. Schools are often the only stable institution that reaches almost all children: Even when school-linked services are cumbersome, they are often the best, and sometimes the only, option.

There is no quick fix to the complex social and educational ills that face our country. But there are some things that the new President and his Cabinet can do right away to set a more coherent course.

First, provide leadership and use the federal bully pulpit. A visible and vocal focus by the President and his Cabinet on having programs strengthen children and families would provide a special boost to the many states and communities, from Massachusetts to Missouri to California, that are already working to link programs and people more effectively. Federal leadership would provide a catalyst for action where turf and institutional inertia have stalled progress towards making programs fit together more sensibly. It is important for the President to set this tone quickly and decisively, before his appointees are constrained by the limited perspectives of their agencies.

The President has chosen impressive key Cabinet secretaries who could help him provide this leadership. As Governor of South Carolina, Secretary Riley demonstrated his clear understanding of the relationship between education and other services in building strong communites--and the relationship between strong communities and a strong economy. Donna Shalala, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, is a national leader in education as well as children's issues.

Then, go beyond rhetoric and act. Revamping programs to make them make more sense will require tedious analysis and tough choices. It means revisiting and perhaps radically revising funding streams and eligibility requirements. And it means including new players in the decisionmaking process. For example, the U.S. Education Department should be a partner as other departments move ahead on policies that affect students. Upcoming legislative windows of opportunity for collaboration include Congressional review of key laws that expire in 1994 and 1995, including Head Start, Food Stamps, and several major block-grant programs. It will also be important for the Education Department to work with the White House and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services so that strategies for revamping the national health-care system make sense for students and draw on the lessons learned from school-linked health services.

The most immediate legislative vehicle for educational action to encourage collaboration in states and communities is the upcoming Congressional reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes the $6.7 billion Chapter 1 program for disadvantaged children. We are not suggesting setting up more bureaucratic structures or creating a separate categorical program called "collaboration,'' but rather weaving incentives for holistic state and local approaches throughout the law. For example, schools that effectively link education and other services for low-income children could be tangibly rewarded with more money, more flexibility, or waivers from troublesome regulations.

Other departments could and should join with the Education Department in reshaping parts of E.S.E.A., with an eye toward reducing conflicting definitions, standards, and procedures among programs, all of which, after all, serve largely the same children and families. For example: Should all children in Chapter 1 schools be automatically eligible for Medicaid? And how can reporting and accountability mechanisms be made more consistent and less cumbersome, with more focus on outcomes and less on process?

Similarly, the 1994 Congressional reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act provides a golden opportunity to make it less cumbersome for children with disabilities, and their families, to receive health services and other needed help.

There is also much that can be done administratively, without legislation. For example, President Clinton could create a Family Council and charge it with breaking the interdepartmental gridlock that today paralyzes the well-intentioned administration of piecemeal governmental programs. This council would include the 13 Presidentially appointed policymakers across six departments who collectively administer most federal programs affecting children and families.

To be effective, this Council would require continuing unequivocal support from the President and his Cabinet secretaries. It would have to be coordinated by the White House, not one of the participating agencies, and be led by someone who understands that the key clients of all of these programs are children and families, not schools, organizations, agencies, farmers, developers, or other entities that administer programs and compete for funds.

Our work has shown that the Congress would be receptive to, even welcome, strong leadership from the Clinton Administration to impose some sense on the crazy-quilt of federal programs affecting children and families. What better way could there be for the new Administration to follow through on its promise of putting people first?

Margaret Dunkle is director of the Policy Exchange at the Institute for Educational Leadership. Michael D. Usdan is president of the Institute for Educational Leadership.

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