Day Careless 

If something really doesn't do any good, what good does it really do?

If something really doesn't do any good, what good does it really do?

Professor P. Notes, who holds a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University (who's going to check?) would like to introduce you, Gentle Reader, to the essential public policy concept of the "salutary effect."

Since 1997, five Tennessee children have died when they were accidentally left inside day care center vans on hot summer days. This happened four times in Memphis and once—just last year—right here in Nashville.

In response to this, the Tennessee Department of Human Services announced this week that it would increase its summertime inspections of the state's 1,000-some-odd day care centers certified to transport children. The theory seems to be that these increased inspections will prevent any more such tragedies.

"Agencies need to take extra precautions as the weather gets warmer, and our staff will be watching," department Commissioner Gina Lodge said in a DHS press release. "Licensing counselors are beginning stepped-up enforcement of all agencies that provide transportation. Surveillance of licensed child care agencies and extra unannounced inspections over the hot summer months are planned."

Sounds good, right? Maybe, but when you get right down to it, what good will it possibly do?

Let's suppose for argument's sake that there are 16 weeks (roughly four months) in Tennessee during which it's hot enough for a forgotten child to die inside a van. There are five workdays in every week, so that's 80 days total. Now let's say that the typical day care center is open 10 hours each day. Ten hours multiplied by 80 days is 800 hours. Now let's suppose that the average visit by a DHS inspector to a day care center is about an hour long, which seems like a pretty fair estimation.

This means that among those centers to be visited, there is only about a one in 800 chance that a DHS inspector will happen to be on the premises of a day care center if or when a child is abandoned in the center's van. Actually, the odds are much worse than that, given that 200 centers would be left unvisited under this scenario and given the long-shot chance of an inspector being at a center at exactly the same time that such a violation occurs, but all that gets a little complicated. Suffice it to say that claiming DHS staff "will be watching" and that day care centers will be under "surveillance" is probably overstating things.

But, you might say, what's the harm? It certainly couldn't hurt.

You would be right. There is absolutely no harm in what DHS is trying to do, but there is also nothing constructive about it either. And please don't suggest that the threat of more inspections will somehow encourage day care workers to be more careful. It's pretty safe to say that a press release warning that DHS is going to "step up" its enforcement is probably not going to affect someone dense enough to "forget" a child in a vehicle while he or she is supposedly engaged in professional child care.

All it really does is make everyone feel better, it doesn't really hurt anything, and it gives the impression that state government is giving us some bang for our seven cents on the dollar. Kind of like when the United States Department of Homeland Security raises the "threat level" to orange. What does that really mean? Nothin'. We aren't any safer than we were when it was yellow, but voters like the appearance of the government paying attention to something, even if what it's actually doing accomplishes absolutely nothing.

And that is your introduction to the "salutary effect." Our topic for next time will be "HOV Lanes: Earth Savers or Wastes of Perfectly Good Driving Lanes?"

Class dismissed.

Thanks for nothing

Challenging an 18-year incumbent is no easy task, but then neither is teaching high school English, so maybe Tom Cash, local public school teacher and candidate for the state House District 55, will have what it takes to unseat Gary Odom in the August Democratic primary.

Cash describes himself as more progressive than Odom on social issues and says that Odom has been "mighty quiet" for someone who has been in the legislature for so long. Cash also—naturally—wants to focus more on education issues.

One might think that Cash's focus on education as a central issue, his status as a veteran teacher at Hume-Fogg Academic High School and his membership on the board of the local teachers' union political action committee would get him some, er, cash from the Tennessee Education Association. You'd think wrong. Odom is the clear favorite in the race (he would be against anyone), and so Cash says the TEA probably won't be giving him a dime.

Blank slate

Speaking of which, on the TEA's Web site, www.teateachers.org, there is a drop-down menu labeled "Who We Are." When visitors click on that, they will find a blank screen with the following promise: "Content coming soon!"

We can hardly wait.

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