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is always very welcome...
First Lessons from Kindergarten
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
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,
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
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?
Go to Brad De
Long's Home Page
of Economics Brad DeLong, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax