Do It Now But Also Do It Right

BARRY RASCOVAR

December 08, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.

There is no disagreement that parents ought to be compelled to send their children to school.

There is not much dispute that parents should be held accountable for seeing to it that their kids receive regular medical attention.

Few would differ with the premise that parents should be forced to provide adequate shelter for their children by paying the rent on time.

So what's all the fuss about the Schaefer administration's new play-or-pay welfare proposal?

Gov. William Donald Schaefer is promoting a novel plan that pressures parents on public assistance to act responsibly toward their children. It takes basic societal values -- kids must be given an education, health care and decent housing -- and imposes these values upon welfare recipients.

Those who play by the new rules will get full welfare benefits; those who don't take care of their kids will pay for it through reduced benefit payments.

There shouldn't be any objections to the general concept behind the plan. After all, parents who don't attend to their kids' education, health and housing needs already may be breaking state laws and run the risk of seeing their children placed in foster homes.

But from a practical standpoint, this proposal contains gaping holes. Implementation could prove a governmental nightmare -- if bureaucrats can even figure out how in the world to set up such a complex undertaking.

Simply getting accurate attendance records from public schools especially the city's obstructionist education bureaucracy -- could prove daunting. Getting accurate rent-payment records or health check-up records create other formidable obstacles.

At least state social service officials have some time to figure out how to make the program work: The plan would not be launched until next July 1 and reductions in welfare payments would not actually happen until the beginning of 1993.

But trying to translate such a complicated proposal into an effective program using an already overworked staff that now faces a barrage of new paperwork could be asking for the impossible.

Still, the Schaefer administration has public opinion strongly on its side. That should help the governor when he presents this proposal to the legislature. This particular "do it now" initiative has developed considerable momentum. The problem crops up when officials are asked a follow-up question: "How are you going to do it now?"

This is the kind of practical question that has been the Achilles heel for several other Schaefer initiatives. "Do it now" wasn't enough, for instance, to save the governor's treasured math-science high school.

It was a wonderful idea -- a state-run public boarding school for math and science whizzes -- that never got off the ground because the administration hadn't done its homework.

Those how questions kept popping up. How can the state afford to pay $10 million to $20 million a year to run an exclusive science high school? How do you justify spending so much money on an elite group of kids when 750,000 other public school students don't have adequate math and science courses? How would you run a statewide high school?

In other cases, Schaefer acolytes, in their rush to "do it now," have failed to "do it right." They've been great at coming up with innovative ideas but have failed to resolve the knotty problems of getting programs off the ground.

The new stadium complex at Camden Yards and the light-rail line were dynamite ideas, but they faced horrendous cost

overruns because of the lack of careful, initial planning and cost-estimating. Too much "do it now" and too little "do it right" almost doomed the projects.

Could the same thing happen to the governor's ambitious welfare overhaul?

Possibly. It could easily get bogged down in red tape. It could also collapse if officials don't have answers to all the how questions sure to be asked by legislators and welfare advocates. The governor's heart is in the right place. His proposal is right on target. Now comes the hard part -- turning these ideas into actions that actually work.

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