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Public Policy Failing Children

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Deitchman
August 19, 2022

Large groups of sports fans gathered in person in establishments along Atlanta’s burgeoning Beltline corridor on the night of Saturday October 17, 2020. On the television screens the hometown Atlanta Braves faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in a pivotal baseball playoff game that featured the next two World Series Champions and the University of Georgia Bulldogs met the University of Alabama Crimson Tide in a college football matchup of the next two National Champions.  The results of those games, losses for both the Braves and Bulldogs, might have been disappointing to locals that autumn night, but more disappointing for our future is that on the Monday after the games, Atlanta Public School students did not return to their classrooms for in-person instruction. In fact, while the bars were open, the schools would be closed for several months more. The articulated public policy priority throughout 2020 was reopening the economy, not reengaging in-person education. Children were not the priority.

Closing and reopening schools during the first year of the Covid-19 Pandemic was a balancing act for leaders facing these unprecedented decisions about education, childcare and public health. Generations of historians, analysts and scholars will study and evaluate these imperfect choices for governments, schools and parents in uncertain times. The reality of adults leaving home to watch televised events while kids had to struggle through school on their screens at home, however, reflects poorly on our social and political values. Watching sports among fellow enthusiasts while supporting local businesses is a great pleasure and a well-deserved diversion for many of us, and risk-informed people going out to revive economic activity amidst the virus is a fair choice, but it is also fair to consider the broader choices and implications in the ordering of reopening not just our economy, but American society. In terms of educational achievement and general well-being in light of the social distancing and remote instruction, the consequences of the choices for children will impact us for decades to come.

The end of remote instruction is a welcome development, but that was just one challenge facing our educational system. Underinvestment and a lack of support for education professionals has left our children without the leaders and role models necessary, in and beyond the classroom, to achieve their goals. The level of violence in schools and communities is a national tragedy. Beyond the prevalence of mass shootings directly in American schools, the omnipresence of firearms, requiring some school systems to institute clear backpack policies, facilitates a dangerous and fearful climate. Instead of addressing these problems activists are focusing the discourse towards efforts that hinder necessary discussions of race and respect for one another no matter one’s circumstances.  Ultimately the losers in these ideological zero-sum debates are our children.

For all of the failings of the last several years, there are some glimmers of hope for policies that support children. Tax incentives and other financial programs made a dent in child poverty rates and supported families in need.  Attention towards climate change and other long-term challenges facing our planet can protect our kids’ future opportunities.  In our interconnected and technologically advanced world there are many features of childhood that are far superior than ever in 2022. Parents have never been as well informed in supporting their own kids.  Public policy and public administration, however, are not well aligned for doing the best by our children.      

The broad problems facing twenty-first century childhoods are wicked and contentious. Every kid and every situation is different and there is no one size fits all solution to support the diverse family situations of the present day. More attention towards children’s needs can facilitate improved processes and outcomes. Reducing the voting age to sixteen would bring younger voters into the mix and realign some of the political power that senior citizens exert. A cabinet level Department of Childhood in the Federal Government, with a broader scope than the Department of Education to help kids both inside and outside the classroom, might better focus attention on the issues. We also can adjust our policy analyses to include an evaluation of how decisions might impact the youngest generation. Even a policy that might seemingly not be about children could have unintended consequences for the youngest amongst us. As a society we have all experienced a challenging few years. Children in particular, however, took on a greater burden than older generations. We love our own children and other kids in our lives, and we owe it to them to align public policy and public administration with their best interests.        


Author: Benjamin Deitchman is a public policy practitioner in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Deitchman is on Twitter @Deitchman. His email address is [email protected].       

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