Politics & Policy

Leave The Children Behind

Don't use them for your cause.

During the Democratic convention I appeared on C-Span’s Morning Journal. I received two particularly interesting bits of feedback. First, one viewer wrote to tell me that he thought it was outrageous that I could sit there and not object as a caller said I was “honest.” After all, this fellow said to me, I hadn’t informed the viewers that I had hair plugs.

Just for the record, I don’t have hair plugs, a toupee, or anything else of the sort. I do have an enormous gourd of a head–like sputnik, spherical but pointy in parts–and thin hair so if the light hits me the right way my cabeza might look like a moonscape with sparsely planted palm trees. Besides, anybody who knows me knows that follicle amelioration is far down on the list of cosmetic surgeries I’d sign up for. I’d certainly opt for the industrial wet-vac lyposuction first. Indeed, I’ve had a memo collecting dust on Lowry’s desk for years pitching a story on the cosmetic-surgery industry–for which NR would foot my prodigious bill under the rubric of “research.”

Anyway, the second interesting tidbit came from a bunch of C-Span viewers–not NRO readers–who were stunned, indeed staggered with mouths agape over my declaration that I detest the formulation “No child left behind.”

“I don’t understand,” wrote one flummoxed viewer after another. “Don’t you get that it means the federal government will set a minimum standard for all children? That we live in a society where everyone should have the same opportunities? That blacks, browns, and yellows have as much right to a decent education as whites? That we live in a community (you heartless bastard!)? That we cannot get to the promised land unless everybody’s on board!? That soy is a completely acceptable replacement for the meat-dairy industrial complex!?”

Obviously, these quotes are a composite from various readers.

Regardless, it was illuminating to be pulled from the miasma of my misanthropy to hear from so many people who actually think that “No child left behind” is not only a beautiful rallying cry for the nation, but also that they believe it is a reasonable standard for federal efforts.

Now again, I want to fully disclose where I’m coming from. I hated the phrase “No Child Left Behind” a long, long time ago. I hated it long before George W. Bush swiped it from the Democrats. Indeed, I generally unhitch the safety on my rifle whenever I hear a politician invoke “the children” in terms not directly tethered to actual, specific, children with names and faces. For example, if you refer to “the children” as that group of kids having a ketchup fight at the next table at Arby’s, fine. But if you start talking about the need to curb Greenhouse gases for “the children”; or if you claim that what really offends you about tax cuts is the message they send to “the children”; or if you say the only reason you spend day after day outside the White House dressed like the Grim Reaper shouting “judgment is nigh George Bush!” is “for the children” I’m simply going to assume you’re using “the children” as a way to get what you want without having to trouble yourself with making your case.

This doesn’t mean I don’t care about children. I love children. I even believe that social policy must be written in such a way as to take into account the needs of children. Indeed, if I didn’t care about kids other than my own, I’d be a libertarian.

I guess it’s a contextual thing, and the red flag is the word “the.” The the in “the children” seems to suggest a demographic category for which all violations of the principle of limited government may be justified. Indeed, the creator of the Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman, has essentially admitted that she created the group as a way to use kids as Trojan Horses to sneak-in “progressive” or socialist government policies. After all, if you say “let’s do X or Y for the poor,” lots of folks understand the arguments necessary to defeat such proposals. But “let’s do it for the children” often gets through our intellectual force field.

So let me explain a sad fact of life: Poor people have children. They also have puppies and kittens and, in some cases, hamsters. Using the sometimes sad reality of children in poverty to justify socialized medicine makes no more sense than saying “let’s do it for the hamsters.”

Irving Kristol once noted that among social scientists the phrase “distributive justice” had been slyly replaced by the term “social justice.” He argued that this was a sneaky way to suggest that the responsibility of improving the plight of everyone resides in the government. “Distributive justice” is a dry, dispassionate, objective term in which the facts are laid out without commentary. “Social justice,” Kristol argued, suggested that the final word of what constituted justice could not be offered until the government signed off on it. The state is the final voice of the society–at least for those who preach about social justice. So if there are poor people living in bad ways–regardless of why they are there–it is with the society’s approval because the government sanctions it. Now, I’m not sure I agree with the historical argument about the evolution of the term, but I think Kristol was right on the merits.

Which gets me to my problems with the whole No Child Left Behind thing. Like “It takes a village to raise a child,” when a federal politicians says such things he or she is not only buying into the notion that the government in Washington is the engine of social progress, but that it is that same government’s obligation to make sure every nook and cranny of our society is on board with the same goal. When you talk about not leaving somebody behind, you are indisputably implying that you are going someplace, indeed that you are leading everyone someplace. That’s not a responsibility I want the federal government to have. Indeed, that’s a responsibility the Founders explicitly wanted to deny it. I see nothing wrong with a local community saying “none of our children should be left behind.” I see everything right with a church, a corporation, a professional association or a philanthropy saying. “We’re going to help the kids left behind.” But when the federal government says this we have real problems.

Leaving no child behind is an impossible standard for the federal government. Indeed, if truly implemented, such a standard would constitute a colossal and unprecedented waste of resources. For want of a much better analogy: In toxic waste clean-ups, the first 90 to 99.9 percent is relatively cheap to scoop up. It’s the last little bit that is impossibly expensive to deal with. The same holds for children. The vast majority of kids can be educated, and educated well, fairly cheaply, assuming parents, bureaucrats, and communities are all on board. It’s the exceptions–the learning or physically disabled, the emotionally maladjusted, the criminally insane or simply the children of such folks–that prove costly. Now some of these kids obviously deserve special efforts, but that doesn’t mean they deserve special efforts from the federal government. And yet that is precisely what the no-child-left-behind standard requires.

And because it is an impossible standard, saying “no child left behind” is the impetus for an unending stream of rationalizations for increasing government involvement. Some kids straggle behind because their parents are jerks–or simply not around. Get me Uncle Sam! Some kids are left behind because they won’t stop stabbing other kids in the head with sharpened #2 pencils. Let’s start a new program! Some kids are left behind because, well, that’s life when you’re trying to educate tens of millions of children across a vast continent with differing views and cultures. And yet the no-child-left-behind standard demands that each and every failure is evidence that government needs to become more, not less, involved. As long as one child is left behind, the work of the government in Washington remains undone. It’s like strapping the carrot just out of the reach of the mule’s mouth. No matter how much forward “progress” the beast makes, it will never actually reach the goal because the goal is an impossible one. And, in cases like the definition of poverty, the bureaucrats and social planners are constantly making sure the goal is impossible by moving the goalposts.

In the process, those institutions better suited to helping kids start to atrophy. If it takes a village to raise a child, then parents are less important because the blame for their failure can be diffused and disseminated broadly. Local schools who let Timmy, Tammy, and Tommy fall through the cracks can pass the buck to the federal government’s refusal to do “everything” it could. Local businesses see helping their community as a job for the feds, not a civic duty. Whenever something becomes more of a social responsibility it becomes less of a private one; the more federal a mission becomes the less pressing that obligation becomes for the locals.

Anyway, I could go on, but Lucy Tighe Goldberg has woken up and my first obligation is to make sure she doesn’t get left behind. Or, in this case, that she doesn’t feed her milk bottle to the dog. Same difference.

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