'Stray Not From Righteousness'

Photo by Keith MayI've been reading Loitering With Intent:_The Child, actor Peter O'Toole's book about growing up during World War II. There is a swell quote in it from O'Toole's father, reflecting upon the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: "The papers called it a cowardly act of aggression and yet I don't know; if you intend to kick a man to death, there's no point in sending him a post card."

Last month, the board of the Orange County Department of Education sent no post cards before making the surprise decision to pull the plug on the county's 25-year-old child-development program, with no notice to or input from the instructors and parents of the 950 low-income children served by it. The "enrichment" program provided daycare for preschoolers and after-school care for school-age children, with an emphasis on school-readiness skills. It also was an important link in OC's welfare-to-work transition plans.

The board members cited the expense of the program, which last year ran almost $500,000 in the red (which, if you want to comparison-shop, is one-sixth of what county government allocated last year to promote tourism, a.k.a. Disneyland). You'll find board members had a few other reasons as well, if you read member Dr. Ken Williams' editorial in the Sept. 24 Orange County Register.

According to Dr. Williams, privatizing the kids' care is the Bush thing to do. Children belong in the loving arms of Mom and Dad (in Williamsland, it is Clinton-Gore's high taxes that force both parents to work), not in "government-based universal preschool," which he speaks of as if it were a Soviet brainwashing program, part of the "cradle-to-grave" plot to sap Americans of their initiative.

Every so often, Weekly editor Will Swaim makes sense, and he hit it right on the head when he commented to me that when it comes to investing in the poor and working folks of this county, local government loves to preach self-sufficiency and free-market values, yet it is nearly always willing to go out on a limb to help the rich become richer.

If you're Disney, how about untold millions of the 5 freeway's $1.1 billion renovation cost going specifically toward lanes to better feed your ever-gaping maw and all manner of other city and county perks thrown in? If you're the owner of a sports team, how about a pricy stadium revamping, with more sky boxes from which you might profit? If you're a developer, may we please assume the risk and maintenance costs for toll roads to open up new areas for your bulldozers? Not happy with the return on your investment? Not getting richer at the rate you prefer? Let us bail you out.

The education board's thinking toward the working poor seems to be, "Your taxes are too high, so we'll make sure you derive no benefit from them."

This kind of skewed fiscal philosophy, I suspect, has a deep historical root. Outside of the frisky folks who signed the Declaration of Independence, this young nation was peopled by some starkly Puritan stock who believed people were here to work hard, toe the line, and stray not from righteousness, at the peril of a well-deserved fall into the fire.

We're a nation of witch-dunkers, and there are still a lot of hellfire-and-damnation blue bloods who wouldn't mind seeing some more unforgiving retribution around here. And just in case there is no God to judge us in an afterlife, they're making sure they already have us sorted out here on Earth: okay, you people, since you've already been blessed, are clearly the deserving ones. Here is your golden key. Just ring if you need anything. And the rest of you? You didn't make the grade. So see this boulder? See that hill? Get rolling forevermore. It'll build character.

I went to a Sept. 29 rally outside the Costa Mesa Department of Education headquarters and spoke with some of the people the board hadn't bothered to listen to before arriving at its intellectually rarefied decision to liberate them from the shackles of big government.

I asked Adriane Campbell, a Fountain Valley receptionist with two young children in the now-canceled program, about Dr. Williams' view that "the most sheltered place for our nation's 3-year-olds is at home in the loving arms of Mom or Dad."

"I would say to him that if he were in a lot of these parents' shoes, including my own, I don't think he would look at that as an option because if I don't work, they don't eat," she said.

She worried less going to work knowing that her children were in one of the county's child-development centers. "Children need a foundation to build on, and most baby sitters won't provide that. But the teachers were like their second parents. When I'm at work, my children feel like they can look up to them, they can go to them, and they can rely on them like they would me."

Erika Toledo of Santa Ana was carrying a sign saying that the program had enabled her to finish high school. "I became pregnant at the age of 15 and had my first child at 16, so I had to drop out of school," she said. "I heard about this program, was able to get my children in [she now has two sons, Antonio and Alfredo], and I was finally able to go back. I just got my high school diploma. I'm working as a housekeeper while continuing in school to be a nursing assistant. In the program, my 5-year-old has been learning to read and write, so he can start out ahead of where I did."

Santa Ana's Celeste Collins is an office assistant with five children, three of whom are in the county program. "They raise my daughters during the day because I can't. I have to work. I work very hard for my money," she said. "I don't expect them to watch my children for free. I pay partial cost. But I cannot afford $200 a week per child for regular care. This is the only thing that allows me to work and stay off welfare. I don't want to go on welfare and sit at home not making anything for my children's future. This allows me to ensure that they have something to come home to.

"Without the child-development centers, they would have to go where the people watching them are low-paid and unqualified. The board doesn't appreciate how much good this program does. They have a reserve fund they could take the money out of if they go over budget, but they'd rather spend it on 'My Child Is an Honor Student' bumper stickers."

In Dr. Williams' Register piece, he points out that the government program, in which the teachers make some $20 an hour, can't compete with the efficient private sector, where pay is below $10. And if you look at it only on a ledger, I guess there isn't much difference between hiring professionals trained in child development and early education and hiring, say, anybody who's willing to work for less than they'd make shampooing carpets.

I bet they can even get them cheaper. Hell, why not hire winos and pay them with Ripple? Kids love winos. They, of course, can't provide the professional caring and competence that might help the kids to be better citizens and more productive workers. But winos are good because they'll let kids work the remote and are usually content to watch whatever. It is, after all, only the private sector that has the entrepreneurial spark to provide innovative child-development programs like Nickelodeon Marathon and Naked Movie Star.

"Why should the government take the most vulnerable of society and put them in government institutions?" asks Williams. This is the sort of question I might more expect from a Branch Davidian than from a member of government—which I regret to note that you are, doctor —but I'll attempt an answer: it is because government isn't necessarily a malevolent, shadowy force sapping our liberty and precious bodily fluids. It is us. Government is the instrument of our will, doing such things as we have deemed we might best do in common rather than singly. If it fails in that, it is because we as citizens have failed in directing it, which, I think, is becoming clearer in our choice of Department of Education board members.


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