Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wisconsin and its brains

By Bill Kraus

There were two important presentations made two floors and 11 hours apart on Wednesday, January 22, in the State Capitol.

The more prominent one was the governor’s State of the State message which he delivered in the Assembly Chambers. It was mostly about money. Due to too pessimistic projections the taxpayers sent in about a billion dollars more to the state than the state said it needed.

The governor decided that this overage should be returned to those who were overcharged. Doing this precisely is probably impossible, but rough approximations get close enough.

The governor, unsurprisingly, took a lot of credit for this happy accident even though he and we were beneficiaries of events more than of actions taken locally.

There was a lot of show and tell sprinkled through this presentation which has become traditional. There was also a lot of talk about jobs and job growth that was occasionally specific.

All of this added up to almost a billion dollars.

This event was broadcast by TV and radio and was covered by all of the remaining members of the Capitol press corps.

Eleven hours earlier and two flights up in another wing of the Capitol a presentation attended by a large audience which included many legislators and their aides, three Supreme Court justices, representatives of agencies and organizations with responsibilities for budgeting, social services, corrections, and no reporters learned that it may be able to fix the hard-to-fix after all.

Academics and scientists from near and far presented some startling findings at this “seminar.”

Research now proves that it is possible for governments to improve the brain development of neglected children and to reap significant economic returns from investing time, money, and effort in early childhood development to get better education results and dramatically lower incarceration rates.

Putting the cost of doing these worthy things aside for the moment, the more serious barriers to doing what is now doable are that there seems to be a washout en route to the major improvements sought that is happily followed by a predictable rebound. Persistence pays but not immediately. The payoff in money saved and results achieved takes many years, maybe a generation, but it comes as surely as the sun rises in the east.

The catch of course is that the appropriations to make these major social improvements happen have to be made now to get the results when those assessing the taxes will mostly be long gone.

The cost of doing this kind of overhaul and resuscitation of what we have traditionally dumped on an overburdened, unqualified school system is, coincidentally, about a billion dollars in a state the size of Wisconsin.

Will we do what was thought futile and is now doable?

Our over-praised neighbors to the west in Minnesota do not present an encouraging example. The investment in early brain development in that state had to compete with a public investment in a new stadium for the Vikings football team.

Football won.

Is Wisconsin smarter than that?

Will this administration and this legislature seize this opportunity and take the long view and make an investment of this order to make amazing improvements and public spending savings in educational success and incarceration reduction?

It’s a question we might ask those who are seeking to get a hand on the levers of power in this year’s elections.

A somber footnote: Since there were no reporters at the morning event on the 4th floor those who want to know more about this research and its possibilities will have to go to go online for it. There might be more information soon through the UW Extension Learning Store site and a Science of Early Brain Development link. Meanwhile, the press will be busy telling you more than you wanted or needed to know about the tax cutting proposals put forward later that day in the Assembly Chambers.

Follow Bill Kraus on:

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