TESTING THE LAWMAKERS: It's not about the schools; it's about poverty. Discuss! | WisCommunity

TESTING THE LAWMAKERS: It's not about the schools; it's about poverty. Discuss!

The next time (and it'll be soon) that you hear Wisconsin state legislators talking about problems with our public schools and the need to "reform" them by taking them over, converting them to private schools, swiping their funding to subsidize existing private schools  and punishing poorly performing public schools with cuts in state aid, just remember this:

A majority of public school pupils across the United States now live in poverty. That's true for the first time in 50 years. All past gains in reducing child poverty, made by the "war on poverty" beginning in the 1960s, now have been reversed, arguably because inflation-adjusted wages for the working poor and the middle class have for much of that time remained stagnant, or have declined.

And it's not just that more kids are living in poverty; it's that among those impoverished kids, a growing number are living in extreme poverty.

Wisconsin, it is true, fairs somewhat better than the norm. Here in the Badger state "only" 41 percent of all public school pupils come from impoverished homes. Still, that's worse than the poverty in nearby Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio.

If it isn't obvious why this is important, the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University explained it in a nutshell:

Early experiences and the environments in which children develop in their earliest years can have lasting impact on later success in school and life. Barriers to children's educational achievement start early, and continue to grow without intervention. Differences in the size of children's vocabulary first appear at 18 months of age, based on whether they were born into a family with high education and income or low education and income. By age 3, children with college-educated parents or primary caregivers had vocabularies 2 to 3 times larger than those whose parents had not completed high school. By the time these children reach school, they are already behind their peers unless they are engaged in a language-rich environment early in life.

Yet you will strain to hear one whit about all this from conservative politicians who seem intent on further privatizing education in Wisconsin. These are politicians who pretend that poverty does not influence how well many of our children do in school. Indeed, some among these politicians are intent on further gutting the social safety net. They've already reduced the Earned Income Tax Credit, one of the key national programs that has been very effective in easing poverty among the working poor. They've cut food aid. They've reduced unemployment benefits.

In short, it's not about teachers or whether they're unionized; it's not about cirriculum, not about testing, not even about urban versus rural schools. It's about growing poverty. And "get a job" is of little value in a society where many of these kids come from families where one or both parents are holding down one or more full-time jobs.

The statistics on this come from a new analysis of 2013 federal data. The Southern Education Foundation found that 51 percent of pupils in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade were eligible under the federal program for free and reduced-price lunches in the 2012-2013 school year. Noting this, The Washington Post reported that, "The lunch program is a rough proxy for poverty, but the explosion in the number of needy children in the nation’s public classrooms is a recent phenomenon that has been gaining attention among educators, public officials and researchers."

One public elementary school teacher in Albuquerque told the Post that her job has expanded to “counselor, therapist, doctor, parent, attorney.” One of her first chores every school morning is checking whether her students had breakfast, whether they have brought bed bugs to school, whether they have washed recently and are wearing clean, warm clothes. After that, teaching can begin.

Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation, the nation’s oldest education philanthropy, told the Post:

“The fact is, we’ve had growing inequality in the country for many years. It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s steadily been happening. Government used to be a source of leadership and innovation around issues of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Now we’re a country disinclined to invest in our young people."

President Obama has proposed adding a billion dollars in federal support to state education programs, targeted toward poor kids. However, Republicans are far more focused on creating a parallel, private education system funded with public tax dollars. GOP lawmakers think "federal dollars could be more effective if redundant programs were streamlined and more power was given to states." However, they don't seem to think assigning tax dollars to subsidizing an entire, parallel, private school system is at at all redundant.

Nevertheless, here's the key factor in how well kids do in school: whether they come from impoverished families. Fight poverty and academic perfomance will go up, and then poverty will go down some more. In comparison, everything else is just hot air.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given millions to improve education, put it this way: "Can Schools Defeat Poverty By Ignoring It?" Nope. A better question is: "Can politicians fix education by ignoring poverty?" Nope.

Shame on our state and our society if we continue to ignore this widening gap, and the real cause of it.


January 17, 2015 - 9:23pm