Congratulations to Connecticut billionaires Ray and Barbara Dalio for discovering at last a way to try to improve the education of poor children in the state without destroying its freedom-of-information law.
Their previous idea was for state government to create a commission of Dalio and government representatives to distribute $100 million from the Dalios and $100 million from the state while exempting the commission from the usual rules for accountability. No good explanation for that exemption was provided, so the purpose seemed to be to help both sides maneuver the money for patronage.
Fortunately the commission imploded in incompetence as it moved to fire its executive director in secret just weeks after hiring her. This embarrassment, piled on top of the unaccountability, caused the Dalios to withdraw petulantly, blaming the enterprise’s incompetence on those who resented the Dalios’ buying their way above the law.
But last week the Dalios and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities announced that they will work together to provide laptop computers and internet access to the state’s neediest students. Since government money won’t be involved, the accountability law won’t apply directly, though it will apply to municipal governments that work with the new consortium to determine who gets what.
Of course such ordinary philanthropy would have been possible in the first place without any exemption from the accountability law. Though no state appropriation appears necessary for the new plan, any appropriation will be subject to the law this time.
How much money the Dalios are prepared to give away in the new undertaking isn’t determined yet. Unlike their first attempt, there won’t be state matching funds. But state government was insolvent when the first undertaking was announced and now, because of the virus epidemic, its finances are even more precarious and Connecticut has needs far greater than internet connectivity.
Besides, while the internet provides access to nearly all knowledge, it also provides access to infinite amusement, distraction, and misinformation. Further, does anyone really think that the failure of poor kids in school is caused by a lack of internet access and computers?
How did students manage to learn before those inventions, and, indeed, judging from test scores, to learn better than they do now? Who can guarantee that poor kids given laptops and internet access at home will use them to study rather than just socialize, play games, and watch movies and cartoons?
Free laptops and internet access may help those who are already inspired or compelled to learn, but performance in school is mainly a matter of parenting, and most poor kids are fatherless and, if their mother works, not much supervised and mentored at home by anybody. Many kids today can’t even get fed at home, which is why schools now provide not only free lunches but also breakfasts and dinners, even throughout summer vacation.
Of course there are exceptions. Some kids get inspired despite all hardships. But for many kids their most important mentors are teachers, not parents, another urgent reason to get schools operating normally again. Connections between teachers and students are so much harder to build through “distance learning,” which, however bravely attempted, failed this year precisely because too many parents, especially poor ones, failed to make their kids participate.
The decline of education is the decline of the family. Welfare policy may solve that problem someday but mere technology won’t, at least not until somebody invents robots that make good parents.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer.
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