For some time we’ve been hearing much talk about how our government has become too large, too complex, and too involved in areas such as education and social services. My expectation is we’ll be hearing more about these topics as politicians rachet up their rhetoric heading toward Election Day on Nov. 2.

After years of study and observation, I share the belief that government – at all levels – has overstepped its bounds. Beginning with the Wilson presidency, and through those of Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson, Carter and now Obama, for the last 100 years our federal government has broadened its scope to areas never intended by the founders of this country. Since about 1974, Maine has embraced this expansion of government.

The question is: Has the intrusion of national and state government into affairs that were once handled at the local level been effective?

Let’s look at a couple of examples from a Maine perspective.

Before SADs and SAUs, every city and town in Maine ran their own schools. Local control included funding, curriculum, staff and school policies, all enacted and managed by the people of the town. Towns unable to support their own schools made arrangements with neighboring towns to ensure the education of their children.

During these times, Maine boasted one of the best public education systems in the nation, by any measure. Our students were consistently ranked as top performers. High school graduates were able to effectively function within society.

Moving to the present, now with our regionalized School Administrative Districts and Unions, how are we doing? Introduced under the guise of saving money and streamlining the educational process, we have created bureaucratic juggernauts across the state. Each of these organizations now employs more people, and spends more money than any of their constituent municipalities, and in some cases more than all district member towns combined!

Local control has become a fiction, for the large and unwieldy school boards are handcuffed by the state and federal Departments of Education, and are deftly managed by “educational professionals.” In many (most?) cases these professionals, usually called Superintendents, were spawned directly from the now unionized teaching ranks, or from the Department of Education. Do they act in the interest of providing the best possible education for our children, or are they more interested in maintaining the status quo, or even expanding the roles of the schools just as the government expands? Adult education, day care operations and medical services – when did these become part of K-12 education?

While the bureaucratic beast has dramatically expanded over the past 40 years or so, costs have skyrocketed, and the performance of the schools in graduating our children ready to move on in the world has significantly decreased. Maine’s schools are now ranked in the lower half of the middle third while we spend more than the national average on a per pupil basis. The last figure I have available from the Lake Region District documents about $11,500 spent per year, per student. This translates to a single-year cost of $25 million dollars for the towns of Bridgton, Casco, Naples and Sebago to fund.

Moving on, today I read a report stating that 29 percent of Mainers – almost one in three – receive benefits from some type of welfare program. Food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid (MaineCare) were programs cited in the report.

Back in the day, welfare was handled at the local level. If a person or family fell on hard times, it was local government that determined what type of assistance was warranted. People in need dealt with people they knew, usually their local Selectman. In larger cities, there typically would be a department that handled these issues.

The fact that these programs were run locally, like the schools, was the primary reason why they were effective. Everyone knew the programs were there, and the folks that ran the programs could easily quantify and verify applicant need. The system was difficult to game, for everyone involved knew each other, and abuse was not tolerated. The social mores of the times provided the system a built-in incentive for folks to get off the programs as quickly as possible.

Not so once the state and federal governments stepped into the picture. Courtesy of many programs implemented over the years, subsistence upon government welfare programs has become institutionalized, and all incentives for folks to get off the programs removed. It’s now not unusual to find multi-generational families all enrolled in welfare programs today. The same report mentioned earlier documented a 70 percent increase since 2003 in the number of Mainers on one or more of these welfare programs.

I am not advocating rolling back the clock and returning to the ways of yesteryear. But it is obvious that the creation of massive government-run bureaucracies have not made either our schools or social welfare programs any more effective, and there is much evidence suggesting they have become worse as a result of this stewardship. The results of today suggest we stop seeing money and centrally-controlled bureaucracies as solutions to education and social welfare programs.

Based upon history and evidence, my answer to the question posed earlier is “no.” State and federal programs have proved ineffectual in addressing education and social services.

Smaller really is better.

Ted Ropple, of Casco, welcomes discussion and comments on any of his columns at www.tedropple.com.


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