Created 9/17/1995
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First Lessons from Kindergarten

Brad DeLong and Ann Marie Marciarille

Brad DeLong and Ann Marie Marciarille are parents living in northern California.

Our five-year-old started kindergarten last fall.

He diligently does his homework at night, this week cutting blue objects and rectangular objects out of glossy catalogs with his very blunt scissors. The two-year-old feels that she is missing something, demands to go to kindergarten instead of nursery school, and insists that she be allowed to do "home'rk" also. The kindergarten teachers at this local public school are enthusiastic, friendly, patient, professional, and extraordinarily good at guiding and focusing the attention of the five-year-olds.

In December the class went to a special--shortened for kindergartners--version of the Nutcracker. In October the class went on a field trip to a pumpkin patch. In September there was a school-wide picnic, at which he won a cake decorated with small plastic dinosaurs. And the week before that we arrived at lunchtime to pick him up, and found the whole elementary school on the blacktop, yelling at the top of their lungs as they watched a Chinese Lion Dance. In a year he will have the option of starting a French or Spanish class.

It is a very good kindergarten. We are very happy with it.

But the school building is thirty years old, and does not look as though it has seen any work since it was built during the baby boom, thirty years ago. Class sizes are pushing thirty. Half of the kindergartners are "early birds"--coming an hour early--and half are "late birds" so that there is at least some time in the day with a lower student-faculty ratio. The school district budget has no money to pay for new playground equipment, for books for the library, for hot lunches, for aides to help offset the large class sizes--or indeed for foreign language classes or Chinese Lion Dances.

Yet the elementary school does have new books in its library and teacher aides in its classrooms (at least some of the time), the students do have the opportunity to take foreign language classes, and the kindergarten playground will in a year or two have new playground equipment. So where does the money come from? From the parents and from the town. From T.J. Maxx, Safeway, and many other businesses that wish to be good citizens (and to attract business) and so offer the parents' club a percentage back of dollars spent by members. Each year the Educational Foundation raises money to top off the school budget. The town has repeatedly voted for bonds and overrides for the schools.

This response is what makes--or perhaps made--America great. As the state government in Sacramento headed by the Deukmejians and the Wilsons has tightened the screws on its contribution to the education budget over the past decade, the parents and the community have recognized that they have a strong and immediate interest in making sure that the schools remain excellent: my kid cannot get a good public-school education unless your kid does too.

This is the spirit that amazed Alexis de Tocqueville when he travelled to America early in the nineteenth century. In France, Tocqueville wrote, patriotism was a feeling of pride in the power and glory of the monarch or the state as the symbolic personification of the country. In America, Tocqueville wrote, "attachment to country... is more rational... more fruitful and long-lasting." It springs from everyone's recognition of "the influence which the well-being of his country has upon his own." Because your own happiness depends on the well-being of others--your neighbors, your town, your county, your state, your country--you work to advance the public interest because it is closely connected to your own private
interest. Five out of every six parents at the elementary school contribute to the local Educational Foundation. And because you have invested your time and energy in the common wealth, it becomes "in part [your] own work.... [E]veryone... takes an active part in the government.... [and so] the citizen looks upon the fortune of the public as his own.... As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured in it..."

Yet look beyond the valley in which we live, and this spirit--that Tocqueville so admired, and that he thought in 1835 would make America the greatest country on earth--is hard to find. For why is it that a town's parents must band together and contribute to the Educational Foundation to top off an inadequate elementary school budget? In 1969 California was perhaps tenth among states in dollars spent per pupil; today it is perhaps fortieth.

The per-worker wealth of the nation has grown by twenty-two percent since 1969; in 1969 there were more than twelve children in primary and secondary school for every twenty workers, while today there are barely seven children at school for every twenty workers. If we spent the same share of our economic resources on primary and secondary education today as we as a nation spent in 1969, we would be spending some $7,100 a year per pupil on education. Instead, in California we spend what? $4,840--a rich state spending sixteen percent below the national average, and only two-thirds of what we "should" be spending if primary and secondary education got the same share of our national resources now as they did then.

So what happens in communities where the average household annual income is not in six figures, where parents can afford to do less, and where the bonds of community lack the strength that makes five out of six voluntarily contribute their time and money to the school system? The hope would be that the government acts to reinforce public spirit and public concern in communities where it is weak, and in communities that are poor. The reality is that we as a country no longer care enough about one another's children, and that politics in the United States has taken a course that turns the stomach of even a George
Will--who denounces current plans for welfare reform on the grounds that "no child [benefits]... from becoming collateral damage in a bombardment of severities targeted at adults who may or may not deserve more severe treatment."

We wish that we lived in a United States that recognized that the welfare of each of our children depends on the welfare of one another's children. In 2030 our now five-year-old will be forty, our now two-year-old will be thirty-seven. We will spare no expense of energy or money to give them the best upbringing we can. But there is one thing that we wish we could give them, but that we cannot buy or do by ourselves: we wish that the others who will be forty or thirty-seven in 2030, and who will make up the America in which our children will live next century, have schools to teach them to read and parents with the financial resources to raise them to adulthood. Our children will be richer and happier if they live in an America where others are rich, happy, and highly-skilled than if they live in an America where others are poor, frustrated, and semi-literate.

It is not that we are unusually public spirited. It is just that when we look at our children we understand where our self-interest truly lies.

So we are looking for a political movement that will dare to say that it is in each of our self-interest to pay a little bit more in taxes, and have us all invest in everything that the next generation now growing up will need--in science, in infrastructure, in health and education, and most urgently in the one-quarter of the nation's children whose households fall below the poverty line.

Why is it so hard to find one?


Created 9/17/1995
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Brad De Long's Home Page

Associate Professor of Economics Brad DeLong, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax