Kids As Infrastructure?

As I write this, elections just happened yesterday, with of course lots of talk about the economy.  Despite the political fighting, one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on: government needs to provide infrastructure.  To have a humming economy, you need good roads and bridges, railroads and air transport, to move people and goods.  You need energy and communication.  So why is a pediatrician writing about railroads and the economy?  Because another key part of infrastructure is education, and that’s kids.

The coming generation of workers is as important to the future US economy as good roads and airports.  We will need skilled and educated workers for the high-tech communication, manufacturing, and engineering jobs of the future.  And right now we are on target to getting beat by foreign competition to supply those workers.  While India and China spend less per kid on education than the US, they do volume business.  With hundreds of millions of kids in their education pipelines, they will bring out plenty of crackerjack engineers and scientists.  In a generation, the leaders of innovation, manufacturing, and technology could very well be in Asia, with the United States left as an economic has-been.

Not enough US kids, particularly Louisiana kids, are getting the education they need.  Driving I-10 East towards Baton Rouge will tell you that Louisiana is not spending enough on roads.  Driving past Lafayette High and seeing its building will tell you that education is not getting enough money either. Then read about cuts to Louisiana’s college budgets. We must do better to get every child a good schooling; the US will need every kid, rich or poor, black or white, girl or boy, to stay ahead.

Good education is not just important to Louisiana’s and our nation’s economies.  It is even more important to the kids themselves.  Kids need good educations to get good jobs.  Kids need good educations to climb out of poverty and ignorance.  There are three pillars of happiness- having love, hope, and work.  The quality of hope and work start way back with the quality of one’s school.

At least once per week I see a bright-eyed kid who lives in poverty.  The child is alive with curiosity and intelligence.  As my mom would say, the kid has “a light bulb inside.”  Then I look at the child’s mom.  She is tired.  She has several children and two grinding, menial jobs.  She comes to the Emergency Department though she knows the child’s cough is not an emergency.  However, the doctor’s office was closed when she got off work, or was too busy to see them.  I can guess that this kid is headed for a below-average education in an unhappy neighborhood.  What will happen to that curiosity and intelligence?  It makes me despair.

The magic bullet to cure poverty is education.  Education starts with reading.  When I see a poor mom and child with potential, I take time to talk to mom about reading.  I tell her to read a book to him every night.  Talk to him a lot.  Fill his head with words.  Intelligence and happiness in kids is proportional to the amount and diversity of words they hear in infancy and early childhood.

The next step in education is pre-school and Head Start.  A good program with early reading and classroom socialization readies a kid for success in school.  Key words in that last sentence are “good program.”  Good pre-schools aren’t cheap.  It costs money to pay for the best pre-school teachers, decent books and toys, and a clean, bright, and safe place to have class.

The next steps in a kid’s education are elementary school, high school, and college.  Like in pre-school, good ones cost.  Society, through its government, must be willing to pay the bills.  Nothing good is free and when it comes to quality: you get what you pay for.

Good schools are the infrastructure kids need to succeed in life, and those kids will in turn be the infrastructure to make a healthy society and economy.  Now that the election is over, let’s encourage our new governments to make a better investment in those governments’ purpose- investing in the kids that will be our future citizens.