The Rise of the Welfare Schools

Education reformers believe, among other things, that schools should be allowed to experiment with different educational models. The idea is that, by letting a thousand models bloom, we will hit upon successful innovations that can be adopted by schools throughout the country. These experiments have led to a number of new educational trends, one of which is the fascinating rise of what I call "welfare schools."

The most famous of these new welfare schools is the Harlem Children's Zone, which provides a laundry list of progams, including free health services, free meals, free pre-K, assistance applying for government benefits, and even housing and clothing where necessary. These kinds of schools, which have popped up in limited degrees elsewhere as well, promise to provide "wraparound services" that help educate the "whole child."

Last week, the San Jose Mercury News had a story about a new such school being built in Palo Alto by Priscilla Chan, Mark Zuckerberg's wife. In the story, Chan's explanation for why she wants to open a welfare school is instructive:

A former elementary science teacher, Chan hopes to take a holistic approach to address health and other issues that hamper children's well-being and learning from a young age. "There is something physiologically happening early in life that changes a child's trajectory," said Chan, 30.


In an interview with this newspaper, Chan emotionally described her quest to help children overcome poverty. An increasing number of studies, she pointed out, show that chronic stress -- brought on by emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, and household dysfunction during childhood -- radically alters brain development. Children subjected to such stress are 32 times more likely to suffer from a learning disability, and a heightened risk of heart disease, obesity, drug abuse and mental illness, she said.

Chan recalled former students and patients whose conditions she could not cure, because multifaceted problems extended beyond her realm. As a Harvard undergraduate, she tutored children in a Boston housing project. "After the first year," she said, "it became evident I could do all I wanted, but there were much bigger problems that were preventing these kids from succeeding in school."

Chan's explanation is not a novel one. Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children's Zone tells a very similar story about why their schools are designed the way they are: there is not much a school can do with kids facing the brutality of poverty.
What's so fascinating about these "educational" experiments is that they don't actually have anything to do with education. What you see with welfare schools are education reformers who come to realize that you need a robust welfare state in order to ensure mobility for children at the bottom. But because these folks are education reform people who are specifically focused on schools, they come up with the idea of creating their own little school-administered welfare states.

Given the rhetorical history of the reform movement, it's obviously easy to criticize the innovative reform of "having a robust welfare state." After all, it is the reformers who have aggressively maintained that we don't need a robust welfare state to help poor kids reach their intellectual potential, and that those who say we do are just making "excuses."

It's also easy to criticize the welfare schools on more substantive grounds. If welfare benefits are what poor kids need, then shouldn't you be campaigning for them nationally? Why are you just implementing them in tiny school-based pockets around the country where you can find enough philanthropy money to do so? How could that model ever possibly scale in the same way that a real welfare state for families with children could scale?