Why the Silence on Welfare Reform?

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Harriet's faith in men and in public schools spiraled downward at the same precipitous rate. In conversations with us, she remembered a father "not as reliable as he should have been" and disclosed that the fathers of her own children are no longer in the picture.

But Harriet is pushing herself hard to work--resolved that she will not fall back on welfare. Living in a poor Boston neighborhood, earning under $20,000, she can keep her subsidized child-care slot for a year. And she is elated over her 4-year-old daughter's preschool, where teachers push the child, developing a lively, active mind, and warn Harriet, "Please don't send her to public schools!"

Sheryl is another of the 14 working-poor mothers we've gotten to know over the past two years. At 20, with two young children, she fled Mississippi after her husband attacked her and her best friend with a baseball bat. Sheryl, too, works full-time in Boston, using her subsidy to enroll her son in a family day-care home in the city's depressed South Side, where the proprietor clearly deserves sainthood: If Sheryl has to work late, this kindly woman will take her son for a haircut, fix dinner, drill him a bit more on the letters and numbers covered that day in "school."

Like Harriet, Sheryl has become profoundly skeptical of the public schools. She pulled her 7-year-old son out of the local elementary school shipping him South to relatives--after a gunman shot up the school. She knows school authorities alone cannot prevent the violence that shakes her neighborhood, but while the affection and responsiveness of her home-based day-care provider offer a hopeful beacon, the dreary neighborhood school underscores the most depressing elements of her community.

The conditions facing Harriet and Sheryl--like the 4.5 million other single mothers moving in and out of the welfare system--have become more clearly felt by policymakers over the past four years. In Washington, an inventive seriousness about families in poverty and quietly bold policy initiatives have surfaced. Yet the strong voices of struggling women like these are in sharp contrast to the muffled utterances of public educators, even as poverty and early-childhood issues have returned to the top of the domestic agenda.

The Clinton Administration--for the second consecutive summer--put family and child-care policy at center stage on Capitol Hill. After months of negotiations, Mr. Clinton introduced a scaled-back proposal to limit eligibility to two years for most parents on welfare. To accomplish this objective, he is calling for new spending for child care, moving beyond his aggressive push to expand Head Start and to raise its uneven quality. Moving toward the November elections, the President and Dan Quayle are already squaring off, making claims over which political party will be best for the family.

In short, educational policy in Washington has given way to family policy. Since 1990, direct tax credits to working-poor families--headed by parents who are working but earning less than about $25,000 annually--have risen to $5 billion in annual benefits. Despite teachers' union recalcitrance, the first national child-care program (allocated as block grants to the states and vouchers to parents) was approved and is expanding. Even though low-income parents feel closer links to neighborhood preschools, education lobbyists wanted to move federal child-care aid through the public schools. This idea fell flat in Congress. Instead, most of this funding--totaling $1 billion a year--goes out in the form of parental vouchers for low-income families.

Meager gains in school spending painfully experienced in recent years--like modest Chapter 1 increases or spending for Goals 2000--are an unfortunate joke in comparison to the skyrocketing political will seen in Washington when it comes to family policy. But public school leaders are curiously silent, or at best ineffective players, as the celebration over family and early-childhood initiatives grows louder. A smattering of local schools do operate model preschool programs. In urban states, almost 20 percent of all preschoolers are attending programs based in the public schools. The education establishment, however, has yet to place a high priority on expanding these efforts.

As the debate over welfare reform intensifies in the coming months, public school advocates once again will have an opportunity to show leadership--this time, one would hope, by pushing to expand preschool access for low-income families and to boost its quality. If the Administration is even modestly successful in nudging single mothers off the dole and into the workforce, thousands of additional child-care spaces must be created, in effect, dropping a very heavy load of expectations--and of youngsters--on an already fragile preschool "system." The political hay accumulated by officeholders eager to look tough on welfare (and the rhetoric will become more macho as the November elections grow near) may prove to be the straw that breaks the back of America's preschool network.

Public schools could enrich this debate, if their own leaders would refocus their political will on early-childhood concerns. Congress has been cajoling the educational establishment to pay more attention to early childhood: pushing forward on school readiness, creating the first ever child-development institute within the U.S. Education Department, and making school-based preschools eligible for federal child-care vouchers.

Four starting points might motivate local schools and their Washington advocates to exert leadership in the early-childhood field. What is crucial is this: When it comes to early education, business as usual in the public schools would be disastrous. Women moving in and out of the welfare system--like Sheryl--won't put up with it. And the pro-choice emphasis of family policy stems from skepticism on the political left and right over whether encrusted school bureaucracies can respond to people's needs. Local schools must be more inventive, shedding their institutional habits, if they are to become important players in the early-childhood area.

What should the public schools do?

  • Create more preschool places for post-welfare families. Over the past two decades and with little fanfare, preschooling in America has become a $6 billion enterprise. But this rapid growth has seriously strained quality. If welfare reform moves just a third of all single mothers into jobs, one million more child-care slots must be created, requiring massive expansion. Our own research reveals sharp inequalities in the distribution of preschool slots, with parents in rural, working-class, and some inner-city areas still facing inadequate supplies and long waiting lists. Public schools could help create more full-day kindergarten and preschool programs: Half of all poor and working-class parents still only find half-day kindergartens in their local schools. Educators are not used to charging tuition. But the under-pricing of preschooling and kindergarten for affluent families simply contributes to the regressive character of school-finance structures. State governments should be urged to support early schooling. Shifting more Chapter 1 aid into early education also would help cover increased cost. (The Senate voted last month to set aside 1 percent of all Chapter 1 funds for early-childhood programs, an unprecedented move likely to be backed by the House.)
  • Build on model preschool programs while "rethinking" quality. Many local schools have developed high-quality early-childhood programs targeting impoverished communities, according to research at Bank Street College. Public schools can recruit better-trained teachers and classroom aides. Public schools also pay preschool teachers about twice what they earn in Head Start and in more numerous independent nonprofit centers. Ironically, many of these teachers earn less than the working-poor parents whose children they serve. Public schools should more vocally lead by example, talking up their successful program models and lobbying for higher salaries within the entire preschool system.

    On the other hand, public schools over all have been slow to understand how parents from different ethnic groups often hold distinctly different cultural norms about child socialization and learning. The residue of the "one best system"--which has failed so miserably within elementary schools--still homogenizes many preschool programs trapped in the public schools. The Latina mothers with whom we talked complain of "big" and "cold" preschools that have no Spanish-speaking teachers, directors that act like impersonal "bureaucrats," and staff members who fail to replicate the affectionate, carinosa qualities expected of nurturing Latina women. How can public schools display the same cultural sensitivities and versatility that community-based child-care organizations have honed since the 1960's?

  • Radically rethink the structure of preschool and family programs. Another African-American mother in our study complains of how her preschool charges an extra $15 if she arrives after the 6 P.M. pick-up time for her child, which happens when this woman misses her transfer bus coming home from work. Preschools--like public schools--are still structured around teachers' preferred schedules. Such old, dusty assumptions about the length of the school day should be abandoned. Many low-income women work night shifts, patching together two or three part-time jobs. The most recent groundswell in Washington emphasizes the potential of "integrated family services," turning local schools into human-scale villages providing all sorts of services. But can the school institution's paleolithic customs be bent in such creative ways?
  • Contribute to job creation. Mr. Clinton's first summer in Washington was probably more inventive in terms of family policy than the one just past. Remember the Family Leave Act? Here the problem was politically defined as insufficient flexibility within the workplace: The structure of labor needed adjusting to improve the family's health. Yet when it comes to remedying the ills confronting welfare recipients, the problem is redefined as being rooted in the public sector: The welfare system or the schools are not working. Pushing to further humanize the workplace has dropped off the agenda.

Relentless centrists like Bill Clinton have successfully joined with business to invigorate and help fund school-reform efforts. Perhaps this coalition can be replicated to rekindle discussion of how jobs can be realistically shared and how the workplace can be made more responsive to young families, rich and poor. The symbolism around putting welfare recipients back to work will yield political points for some time to come. But as we flaunt the sacrament of "personal responsibility," let's hold employers' feet to the fire as well. School districts, as a major employer, should think inventively about how to carve more jobs out of fixed resources. Teachers' unions--if seriously concerned about the social cancer of poverty--must be less selfish on this score as well. In the long run, unless jobs are created and the family is strengthened economically, the welfare system will remain as a distracting Band-Aid. And young children will become even more impoverished, sitting in dreary preschools as leaders of the public schools sit timidly on the sidelines.

Vol. 14, Issue 04, Pages 40, 48

Published in Print: September 28, 1994, as Why the Silence on Welfare Reform?
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