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The Kludgeocracy of Preschool

My former colleague Steve Teles has a thought provoking piece in the fall issue of National Affairs arguing that the defining issue of contemporary U.S. domestic policy is not the size of government, but the complexity and incoherence of public programs and policy. This complexity and incoherence, which Teles calls, "kludgeocracy," is the result of both the multiple veto points in our system (which lead to a reliance on temporary, make due patches--or kludges--in response to specific needs or challeges, rather than more coherent and far-reaching solutions), as well as efforts to limit or mask the magnitude of government involvement (for example, by subsidizing activities through the tax code rather than direct expenditures). 

Teles cites examples from a range of policy areas. But as I read through the piece, I couldn't help thinking of early childhood education as a prime example of kludgeocracy in action. While federal, state, and local governments in the United States spend a considerable amount of money--approximately $40 billion when all funding streams are taken into account--on early childhood care and education, this money flows through a patchwork non-system of programs created at different times (ranging from the early 1960s to a few years ago), by different levels of government, to address different pieces of the early childhood need, targeted to different populations of children, for different reasons. While some of this government support flows through transparent direct federal and state expenditures, other forms of support are obscured through the tax code. And in addition to public funding support for early childhood education, state and federal policymakers have also at times tried to improve early childhood quality through licensure requirements--which pass on the costs of improving quality to providers and consumers. The result is a system that is difficult for policymakers and the public to make sense of, extremely challenging for families and providers to navigate, far from transparent about its services or costs. It's a system that provides too little resources to meet the needs it ostensibly seeks to serve, but also provides less access and lower quality than it should, given the resources it consumes.

And the crazy thing is that every effort to improve on the current patchwork simply adds another layer to the kludgeocracy: Even if I agree that the new federal support for pre-k proposed in Congress last week has tremendous potential  help more kids enter school ready to succeed, there's  no getting around the fact that it will add to, not diminish, the complexity and "kludge" of our existing non-system. Even strategies designed to better integrate and align existing programs and services and reduce complexity often end up, in fact, just adding another layer of patches on top of what's already there. Yet anyone who talks about fundamentally reorganizing these layers to move towards a sensible system for kids and families would come across as both crazy and dangerous. Crazy, because the type of reform needed to rationalize our existing early childhood supports is, for reasons Steve eloquently describes, a total no-go in our current political environment, due both to fiscal and social conservatives who oppose any increase in spending on our neediest kids, and to established interests who resist changes in existing programs that might interfere with their prerogatives. Dangerous, because in our current political and fiscal landscape--at both the state and federal level--any effort to do the kind of dismantling needed to clear space for a more rational system would pose the very real threat of total loss of services for vulnerable children that, however inefficiently the current system works, would be worse off without it. This is an issue that Steve doesn't mention in his paper, but one I think is worth adding to the conversation on kludge: in an environment of intense opposition to extending or even maintaining the current social safety net, individuals and groups who support the goals of social programs (including preschool and childcare programs) are reluctant to propose changes that would rationalize those programs not just because they have a vested interest in the status quo, but because of legitimate fear that opening the door for change will result in the total loss of needed programs and services, rather than their improvement. This is one of the most problematic effects of the polarization around the size of government and social safety net programs over the past few decades: iIf we cannot have an honest conversation about the shortcomings of various public programs because any recognition of their shortcomings is seen as a veiled attack that risks opening the door for their evisceration, then we also can't do the difficult work needed to make them as effective as they need to be. You see a different sort of version of this in debates about K-12 public education reform, where one camp views all criticism of existing school performance, and all reform strategies proposed by other camps in the debate, as a veiled strategy to destroy public education. 

And this is incredibly harmful. The smartest policy minds end up focusing on how to jerry-rig marginal patchwork improvements in the ever expanding morass of kludge--not thinking of the best ways to solve our problems.That's practical--people who peddle blue-sky policy solutions with no recognition of existing policy, fiscal and political constraints don't get far. But I also worry it  actually diverts us from the kind of original thinking that could generate radically better solutions to our most pressing problems. 

So: Here's a question for you: If you were rebuilding our early childhood education from scratch, without the constraints of the existing system, but with recognition that fiscal limitations really do exist at both the state and federal level (albeit with some assumption that program design features may influence what those limits actually are), what would you do? 

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