The Politics of Policy Making for Children
In December 1992, 25 people gathered in a conference room in Sacramento, California. Each individual attending the meeting represented a different children's advocacy group. Some were concerned particularly about preschoolers and child care arrangements; for others, professional interests revolved around children's health issues. Still others focused their efforts on child nutrition or elementary education programs.
These people met in Sacramento as members of a state-appointed task force to design the implementation strategy for a new law which all of their organizations had supported in its formative stages. The statute authorized additional funding to provide free milk for young children, from preschool age through grade three.
Once past the initial introductions and expressions of pleasure at being part of this collaborative activity, the group got down to the business at hand, or at least tried to settle into its task. What quickly became apparent, however, was that each task force member represented not only a different organization, but a different organizational agenda.
Organizational interests would shape task force discussions. In other words, individual organizations' conceptions of the parameters of the task, the boundaries within which it might be accomplished, and the particular role individual organizations might play framed the ensuing conversation about how the expanded free milk program would be implemented.
The individuals gathered around the Sacramento conference table were attending the meeting to accomplish the same public purpose, to insure that the milk reached the children. Yet this seemingly simple, straightforward undertaking quickly became enmeshed in interest-group politics and issues of turf protection. Who would be 'in charge'? What group might gain precedence in this activity? Who, ultimately, might claim credit if the program was successful?
The example cited above illustrates a fundamental challenge in the task of policy making for children. Bringing together representatives of various interest groups, even different groups with ostensibly the same interest, namely developing and implementing a new program for children, causes the conventions of interest-group politics to become standard operating procedure. Organizational interests tend to eclipse larger policy concerns. Yet the example of the California milk program does not even begin to approach the complexity of the far larger task of crafting comprehensive, coordinated public policy for children and their families. This bold undertaking, spanning numerous traditional policy boundaries, has come to travel under the umbrella of developing integrated, or coordinated, children's services.
The topic of integrated children's services has come to occupy an increasingly prominent place on the political and public policy agenda. The reason seems relatively straightforward: 'Report cards' for children and families, whether examined from national, state, or local levels, reveal a steady decline in the life situations for many of the U.S.'s young people. Moreover, a growing body of research points to the conclusion that conventional policy making for children, which typically results in fractionated governance—multiple programs in multiple agencies, unconnected funding streams, and targeted dollars for specific programs—may be exacerbating rather than alleviating the problem. Thus, added emphasis is being placed in policy-making circles on the need for a comprehensive children's policy which brings together the now disparate elements of fragmented efforts.
Consonant with increased policy talk about comprehensive children's policy and integrated services, the number of children's advocacy groups is burgeoning. Some of these groups promote broad-based, encompassing agendas designed to lead to broad-scale policy for children and families. Most groups, however, work within long-established categories, targeting their activities to particular areas of children's policy, such as health, child care, foster care, or juvenile justice. Resulting policies typically mirror the fragmented and categorical nature of interest-group activities.
In addition to the growing band of children's advocacy groups, conventional education interest groups, particularly teacher unions and administrator and school board associations, continue to occupy their usual, and often influential, places on the policy-making scene. Yet these organizations too increasingly have become part of the children's policy-making mix with the spiraling recognition that children's ability to succeed in school is highly dependent on a complex web of family and environmental circumstances that shape children's lives.
This chapter is a preliminary exploration of the politics of policy making for children. It represents an effort, in other words, to begin to 'unpack' the political dynamics surrounding the development of children's policy. As such, it is an examination of the recent past, the present, and prospects for the future.
While this article aims to explore dimensions of the politics of children's policy, it also promotes a particular point of view. The article advances the argument that the development of integrated children's policy is necessary, but that the creation of such policy requires a conscious shift away from traditional, and conventionally incremental, interest-group approaches to policy development.
The article begins by offering a working rationale for the development of a comprehensive children's policy, then proceeds to a review of the recent history of efforts to initiate programs for children and families. It then places the discussion in context by briefly exploring the politics of children's policy in one state, California. The article concludes by asserting that, in order to open the policy doors for broad-based integrated services for children, the current political paradigm must be fundamentally altered.
This article was originally published in Education Policy Perspectives by Taylor & Francis Global.