There is a subtle undercurrent rippling through conservative thought in Louisiana’s legislature. For years conservatives clung to a fervent belief that if we just did things the way we always did then everything would be fine. But the world changes and our society has moved on.
When I grew up in post WWII America, women had left the workplace that they had joined during the war. They had returned to a job that was basically defined by the four walls of the home and was centered upon the nursery. I never did ask my mom if she was happy in her role but I believe that she was.
In this world, work was plentiful and a family could easily be built around a working dad and a stay-at-home mom. This was a time when education was placed on a high plateau and moms were expected to prepare the young for school by instilling them with a desire to learn, providing the underpinnings of education, encouraging socialization, and demanding discipline.
But we don’t live in the 1950’s anymore. In 21st century America things are different. From the perspective of education are they better or are they worse? Well from my view they are much worse. Having an educated mom at home instilling those fundamentals in children was to a great extent the best scenario. I say this because I believe that today’s increasingly poor educational outcomes prove that point. But today my thoughts are all just hypothetical, that type of home doesn’t exist very much anymore.
Here is the reality, in our 21st century America women want to work, need to work, and should have the right to decide whether to work. This brings on a dilemma for legislators. Many conservatives very much want to hold onto the past. But the past is past and we must face the realities of the future.
Perhaps the most important concept legislators must deal with is the intersection of childcare and early childhood education. These two terms are today linked but until Act 3 of 2012 they were not. Act 3 brought these two ideas together as they always had been two separate goals, the first was taking care of kids while parents worked. The second was preparing children for success in their later education. Until Act 3, just childcare was the main topic but today we have mandated that both goals be accomplished in the same setting. For the sake of simplicity I will use the term childcare to imply the post Act 3 concept of traditional childcare combined with early childhood education.
To further understand the issue let me divide our state’s population into three categories; the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy. In a world that has so many working moms and broken families the youngsters from wealthy homes have an advantage. Though those coming from broken families have weak family role models, wealthy parents are able to afford first class childcare and education. These children have always had an advantage over the children from families in which the mom worked but there was no money for quality early childhood education.
In middle class families providing a capability for the mom to work is critical for the family’s ability to stay middle class and to move up. Middle class families, though recognizing the need, often struggle with the cost of childcare. Despite the cost, for many middle class families, preparing children for later education is a high priority and so they are willing to sacrifice. In Louisiana there are few if any avenues for the middle class to receive support for their needs. These folks are the majority of the taxpayers but they get little back in direct support.
This leaves the poor segment of our society. To use some generalizations many of these folks are poor because they are under- or un-educated, children’s education is not a family priority, and/or because they live in dysfunctional homes in which even a working mom doesn’t bring in enough to support the kids. In these cases, though they recognize that success of children is important, their circumstances present few meaningful avenues to success. Recognizing the issues for a very long time the poor, at the expense of the middle class, have been the focus of government largesse. Unlike the middle class they actually do have access to some support, not enough perhaps, but some do get what they need.
Now what does any of this have to do with conservative thought. An ancient expression says it all:
“Give a man a fish and he feeds his family for a night, teach a man to fish and he feeds his family forever”
Conservatives believe in personal freedom and small government. Louisiana’s political philosophy for the past hundred years has been based upon a concept that we have so many poor people because of forces beyond our control. This led to the concept that government’s primary role is not to teach a man to fish but to provide ever growing sustenance through wealth transfer. Conservatives acquiesced in bad policies by refusing to face changing times and to apply conservative values to those changes.
But today we are encountering a sea change of conservative thought. Starting with the Education Reforms of 2012 (including Act 3) conservatives are demanding better educational outcomes at all economic strata. Conservatives recognize that unless a child has the proper support and fundamental education they will have no reasonable expectation of success. No success simply breeds more government dependency and a myriad of social ills. In the waning days of this legislative session this new wave of conservative thought is revealed in the growing demand for funding for Early Childhood education programs.
Changing conservative thought in Louisiana points up a strange pattern. Conservatives are fighting for better results for all kids but especially the poor and middle class kids that are the natural base of Democrats and the Democrat governor. At the same time the governor is paying only lip service to this base by trying to provide minimal funding for childcare while using other potential funds to take care of his political needs and his “Pac-man”-like healthcare disaster. “Pac-man”-like because this poorly conceived and executed program has and will continue to eat up all funds that could be used for important state priorities like childcare.
Louisiana conservatives are moving away from ideas that have really not worked and are applying strong conservative concepts, such as providing an early childhood preparation, that meet the needs of children and of their families. This even as the Democrats try desperately to keep their base intact by just offering more of the same giveaways that have left that base so impoverished.
Future political writers may well use our time as the benchmark when we finally abandoned Huey Long populism and, by applying modern conservative logic, moved Louisiana up in the American success story. They may also write about the beginning of the end of government dependency resulting from bad educational outcomes, a very conservative value.