Advocacy Groups Must Find Common Cause

by Jule M. Sugarman

Ibegin with an apology to the dozens of organizations and thousands of professionals in education who have labored with great commitment and considerable success in the interests of children. Some may consider my remarks on educators’ roles in child advocacy as too harsh, unfair or unbalanced.

I salute educational administrators for what they have accomplished but believe the environment for advocacy has changed so radically that major changes in approach are essential. Without these changes, I believe child advocacy efforts will have fewer and fewer successes.

What Went Wrong

Child advocacy as practiced in the 1960s, '70s and '80s itself fell short in several respects. This is what I see as the principal weaknesses in advocacy during those years, many of which are now even more serious.

Principally, child welfare and educational organizations have failed in recent years to support politically a cohesive group of congressional representatives committed to children’s issues. Those members and senators who fought the good fights received little financial or other support as they faced re-elections. Advocates continued to believe that reliance on data, reason, and virtue in advocacy was sufficient to win support as distinct from hard political infighting.

Similarly, there has been a continuing failure to rally child advocacy organizations to common causes. Not infrequently we have witnessed episodes of internecine warfare, most particularly between advocates for education and those supporting a wide variety of health and social programs.

The proliferation of advocacy organizations for very specialized programs or very specialized constituencies was, in the end, counterproductive. Many of these organizations enjoyed some success in obtaining legislation for a very targeted purpose, but few were able to sustain support and build beyond their initial successes to secure the funding to serve additional children or improve program quality. Many members of the public found the sheer number of such programs disturbing. They also reacted negatively to the enormous costs and complexity of competing for targeted funds.

A persistent problem was brought to light by the news media and the Congress: some advocacy and professional organizations were perceived as being more interested in protecting their own turf or in improving their own economic status than they were in the outcomes for children. Unfair though those criticisms may be, they clearly have a deleterious effect on public support.

Perhaps most damaging was the lack of attention to the actual operation and effectiveness of programs. The common assumption was that if an advocacy organization secured detailed legislation, strong standards, community participation, and more funding, everything would turn out fine.

But that was not always the case, and advocacy groups generally failed to monitor performance or to insist on corrective action when merited. Complainants often were ignored, and evidence was dismissed. The public came to believe that no one cared taxpayer money was being wasted or results were not being achieved. Although strong evidence suggested many programs did work, it often was overshadowed by smaller but widely publicized incidents that, fairly or not, created a negative image in the public’s mind.

These problems are exacerbated by the tendency of some national organizations and their spokespersons to believe that they have the only true vision. They did so at the expense of losing real support from the grassroots, where people did not often agree that the Washington way was the best way.

The growth of strong and professionalized lobbying organizations at the national level was not sufficiently matched by efforts to build political strength at the state and local levels. The communication between the nationwide and state and local programs was and is seriously deficient.

On the Plus Side

No one can deny that advocacy techniques developed during those years were responsible for creating major new federal programs and significant improvements in federal funding for child nutrition programs, food stamps, Head Start, child care and development, foster care and adoption services, health services, special education and post-secondary education.

But no such comparable gains occurred in federal support for elementary and secondary education or youth services, child mental health, and parent support. For cash assistance the record is actually negative with per capita benefits in constant dollars dropping nearly 40 percent over the last decade.

What a difference we see in the current decade. For the most part, public support for children is characterized by no new initiatives and either "hold the line" or reduced funding. Why did this happen? In many ways it had nothing to do with advocacy for children. Factors such as a failed economic policy that led to startling increases in the federal deficit and interest on the public debt, unprecedented increases in the costs of medical care, and, most unfortunately, a growing perception that all public programs and public officials could not deliver what they promised eroded what public support did exist.

Changes in Direction

The negative influences of the early ‘90s can be overcome if there is a change in direction among advocates. Let me be specific.

The overall theme for change should be focus. By this, I mean that advocates need to agree on a few issues they consider to be of greatest importance to children. I suggest two:

* adequate funding for existing programs likely to have the greatest impact on the future of children, and

* programs that can be seen as complementary to overall public objectives, such as family responsibility and reduction of crime.

Local school leaders could be an important catalyst in developing consensus among those interested in early childhood programs, family support, health care, juvenile justice, and social services. If that consensus can build from the ground up, rather than being viewed as dictated from Washington, the results are likely to be much more positive.

In addition, I suggest the following strategies: (1) building strong coalitions and perhaps looking for leadership in organizations not perceived as promoting their self-interest; (2) building locally based organizations that can gain the confidence of the general public; (3) building strong and interconnected caucuses for children within Congress, state legislatures, and local elected bodies and politically supporting those elected officials who are committed to children.

Advocates need to pay much more attention to the management and efficacy of programs. Setting strategic objectives and defining measurable performance goals are vitally important. I say this with some reservations because the enthusiasm for evaluations often may be beyond the state of the art. Nevertheless, the public is unlikely to accept on faith that programs are good for children and deserving of funding just because good people support them.

A Children’s Trust

Finally, a return to the subject of money. We need to strengthen the ability of children’s programs to compete with other public priorities. To that end, I have long advocated the creation of a children’s trust fund to be financed through an earmarked tax, analogous to Social Security. Although the initial legislation did not receive wide support, there is now renewed and growing interest in a 0.1 percent payroll tax to be paid by both employers and employees. That would generate about $10 billion a year.

Unlike earlier versions of my proposal, the new proposal would allow local communities to decide how to use these funds in the most effective ways. Such a program would have accountability requirements and provisions to prevent discrimination but virtually no program regulation.

AASA has supported the concept of a Children’s Investment Trust in the past, and I fervently hope the organization and its members will continue to provide leadership at this most critical time.

Jule M. Sugarman is executive director, Center on Effective Services for Children, Washington, D.C.