More proof has come our way that the root cause of poor performance in public schools has nothing to do with the schools and everything to do with something beyond the schools’ control – poverty. The problem is slapping us in the face, but it continues to be neglected by the legislative majority in Texas and other states as well as, to a large degree, the White House.
The Southern Education Foundation recently reported that more than half of the children attending public schools in the United States are from low-income families. That is, they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under the federal program. The national average during the 2012-13 school year, on which the study was based, was 51 percent, with Texas and 17 other states reaching that percentage or higher. In Texas, 60 percent of school children are considered low-income.
This problem has grown quickly since 1989, when about one-third of public school enrollment nationally was in poverty.
As NEA Today Express pointed out in the article linked below, growing up in poverty is “one of the greatest impediments” to a child’s cognitive development and ability to learn. The article cites data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, showing in 2011, for example, that fourth-graders eligible for free lunches scored 29 points lower on reading than students not eligible. Eighth-graders eligible for free lunches scored 25 points lower than their classmates from families with more income.
The problem shouldn’t be that difficult to understand. Children who are undernourished and chronically ill but can’t go to the doctor because their families can’t afford health insurance are not going to perform well in school and, in many cases, are not even going to go to school. Homework isn’t a priority for a child worrying about his or her next meal or bothered by a toothache that won’t go away.
And, low-income parents who have to juggle two or three jobs to provide that next meal – and try to pay the rent and the utility bill – aren’t going to have much time to help their children prepare for their next classes or even to know for sure if their kids are attending school. For that, matter, the kids also may be trying to earn income somewhere, and many get overwhelmed or discouraged and drop out.
Many of these low-income parents, of course, also are under-educated. Many never completed high school. Texas has the highest percentage of adults without a high school diploma in the United States.
Remember, Texas also has the highest percentage of residents without health care in the country and still refuses to accept the Medicaid expansion offered by the federal government on extremely favorable financial terms. And, Texas still spends less on education per student than all but a handful of states.
So what are our state leaders and the pseudo-education reformers (including some of the state’s alleged business leaders) doing about all this? They are wringing their hands over test scores, calling for tax cuts, proposing private school vouchers and professing to care about the best interests of Texas school children.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remains one of the nation’s biggest boosters of standardized testing, which wastes huge amounts of tax dollars and robs millions of school children of real learning opportunities.
President Obama should either rein in Duncan or replace him.
And then the president and every member of the Texas Legislature should read the new report on education and poverty – and start trying to do something about the problem it so clearly points out.