Dare to Privatize DARE

Midland County Sheriff's deputy lectures students on the dangers of substance abuse.

Most people consider privatization only in the narrow sense of benefits and costs to governments that contract with private firms to provide particular services.

But privatization understood in its broadest sense requires a discussion of (a) whether government should even be providing a given service in the first place, and (b) how government monitors the effectiveness of any service that it does decide to contract out. The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program provides an opportunity to look at privatization from this broader perspective.

DARE is an anti-drug curriculum that was originated in 1983 by then-Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates as a program that linked the Los Angeles Police Department with the Los Angeles Unified School District. It has since grown into a $750 million per year operation that involves about half of the U. S.’s school districts in all 50 states and also districts in thirteen foreign countries. The centerpiece of the program is a 17-week course staffed by police officers in schools. In Michigan, more than 113,000 elementary students and 3,600 high school students were in such DARE programs in the 1996-97 school year.

Currently, the federal government provides 75% of DARE resources with MSU contributing the balance.

At first glance, DARE appears to be a successful model of privatization. A private foundation, formed in 1987, took over operation of the program from the Los Angeles police, and DARE receives no appropriations from the state of Michigan’s general fund. It does, however, use the Michigan Office of Drug Control Policy as a pass-through organization. Michigan State University (MSU) then receives the money as a shared grant for training Michigan DARE officers. Currently, the federal government provides 75% of DARE resources with MSU contributing the balance. Local law enforcement agencies bear the cost of reassigning officers from other duties to the DARE program.

The DARE program does, however, receive a substantial amount of its funding from the federal government. In addition to federal grants, the program also receives funding from state (not in Michigan) and local grants, private donations, sale of merchandise, and, of course, the time donated by police officers.

The city of East Lansing, for example, received $22,435 in federal grants in 1997 for its DARE program, which provides lessons to 250 fifth-graders in nine classes. Michigan State University received a $382,917 grant to conduct training for police officers to become certified to teach the DARE program.

But should the federal government—or any government, since DARE ties up the time of approximately 270 state and local police officers throughout Michigan each year—be involved in drug education?

There is a strong argument that the federal government should not be involved. The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." At best, one must read between the lines of the Constitution to find mention of the federal government’s authority to provide drug education.

Leaving aside constitutional and legal issues, let’s suppose that the DARE program could constitutionally be funded by the federal government—or state or local governments. A good privatization model must first establish that taxpayers should fund drug education for my child by determining if I wish my child to receive government drug education. It is reasonable to believe that a significant number of Michigan parents, like myself, might simply prefer to teach their children how to resist drugs themselves rather than rely upon the government schools for this guidance.

But even if a survey showed that a majority of parents wanted to delegate this important responsibility to the schools, the government would still have to establish that there are overall benefits to society (beyond the benefits to individual children) from this drug education. It would have to show that there exists what economists call a "positive externality." A positive externality is a benefit received by an individual or group that was not involved in the benefit’s creation. For instance, if my neighbor keeps his porch light on at night, I do not make nor do I pay for his decision, yet I benefit from the safety and convenience it provides.

It is not clear that there is a positive externality from drug education. Most of the benefit (or costs) from learning about drug abuse are absorbed by the individual child. To the extent the education is effective in reducing the amount of drug abuse by that child, then the child will be the primary beneficiary. If the drug education actually increases drug abuse (which is claimed, for example, by some of the research), the costs will also be borne primarily by the child.

Is DARE being effectively monitored to ensure that it is meeting its goals of decreased drug abuse among children? There are considerable doubts about the effectiveness of DARE in this area. First, drug use among school children in the United States has not declined despite drug education programs like DARE. Second, a study by the Research Triangle Institute, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that "DARE’s effects were limited to essentially non-existent."

Other studies, such as one commissioned by the California Department of Education, found that DARE and similar programs are ineffective. William Kilpatrick, in his book Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong, notes that the problem with DARE is that it mixes authoritative guidelines with techniques of therapeutic education. This results in "a program in which some elements work to undermine others."

In 1995, the city of Oakland, California after spending more than $600,000 per year without any significant change in drug use, ended its participation in the DARE program. This is a part of privatization that gets neglected: When a program is not working, government should have the good sense to eliminate it.

Given the questions that surround DARE, the 399 Michigan school districts that continue to use the program should carefully evaluate the effectiveness of DARE in their particular community. If there is no evidence of decreased drug use among students, school districts and local police departments should consider cutting their losses and leaving the business of drug education to individual parents and private organizations.