Monday, July 19, 2010

Something to Remember Government Programs Never Capture Everything They Should

There was a NY Times article today on a school that is being penalized for seeking a federal stimulus money grant that led me to some basic reflections on the role of government. I've often said that I think the role of government is misunderstood, particularly in regards to immigration, but this is another aspect of this. It's simply not possible for any government program (or any broad based policy, whatever the source of that policy) to not be designed in a way that won't disadvantage some outliers.

What I don't really get is why this is a problem? It's simply not within the capacity of government to create policies that won't have unintended effects on some outliers. This school shouldn't have been applying for the grant money, it falls outside the intended targets of the grant. There should probably be alternative grant money available to such schools, I would actually be very surprised if there wasn't, but stimulus money is exactly the kind of spending that should not be designed with outliers in mind. It needs to be quick with simple rules that will apply best to standard cases, exactly the kind of case that Wheeler Elementary School isn't.

No wonder it's so easy to construct a narrative of government not working when there are articles like this that make a government program sound like a failure because of the experience of an outlier. Government doesn't do good with outliers, never will, this is where other institutions, such as our broad range of NGOs, should have a chance to shine. If outlier programs such as this are having difficulties it's because we're trying to force government to fulfill a role it's clearly incapable of doing. Responsibility in these sorts of situations has to lie at a more local level that can act with more precision to local peculiarities, government has a role in the vast bulk of schools that conform to general trends. Government may have a role in providing grant money to fuel more local action but that an indivdual grant isn't aimed at it is hardly government's fault.

To address the particularities of the article, I'm not real impressed with standardized testing myself but see few alternatives. The problem will always be administrative costs, capturing the kind of data that would show the true situation of this school would probably be rather more expensive and perhaps open to abuse. Costs may be small for this one school but they would also be imposed on the 90+% of schools where this would be unnecessary. The article is also doing a good job of calling attention to the difficulties this kind of school faces, a very worthy goal, it's the easy tie ins to a narrative of government failure that strikes me as problematic.

[If anyone is doubting that this article is being turned into an anti-government screed, check the comments page on the NY Times article]

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