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A Question of Values

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Ear to the Ground

Half of U.S. Public School Students Living in Poverty, Study Finds

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Posted on Oct 17, 2013
USDAgov (CC BY 2.0)

As the right wingers in the House diddled away time and money with their little act of budgetary hostage taking, The Washington Post dug out a new report from a nonprofit focusing on education policies that found a majority of public school students in the South and the West qualify for free or reduced lunches, which means they are living in poverty.

Nationwide, the percentage was just two ticks below half, based on a Southern Education Foundation analysis of the 2010-2011 school year. Think about that. Half of American children live in families existing near or below the federal poverty line, which is a stingy $40,793 for a family of four. Leading the way: Mississippi, with 71 percent of students qualifying for the food aid. Incidentally, all of Mississippi’s congressional representatives save one—the lone Democrat—voted last month to cut food stamps.

Paralleling the income divide is a school-readiness divide. Children from impoverished families show up for kindergarten with half the vocabulary of their wealthier peers, the Post says. And a decade ago, only four states had a majority of its children qualifying for the meal assistance, the paper reports.

In a large swath of the country, classrooms are filling with children who begin kindergarten already behind their more privileged peers, who lack the support at home to succeed and who are more than likely to drop out of school or never attend college.

“This is incredible,” said Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University, who was struck by the rapid spike in poverty. He said the change helps explain why the United States is lagging in comparison with other countries in international tests.

“When you break down the various test scores, you find the high-income kids, high-achievers are holding their own and more,” Rebell said. “It’s when you start getting down to schools with a majority of low-income kids that you get astoundingly low scores. Our real problem regarding educational outcomes is not the U.S. overall, it’s the growing low-income population.”

Bizarrely, the biggest increases in childhood poverty are in Southern states dominated by Republicans—who have been trying to kill programs that help their neediest constituents. But need and political power are polar opposites in a system where money has the only voice.

It’s quixotic to think, yes, but imagine if the Koch brothers cared about people instead of failed ideology and their own wealth?

The issue also points up such failed educational reform initiatives as the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” and the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top,” which use punitive measures based on student test scores. It’s hard to teach children too hungry to focus. Hank Bounds, the Mississippi commissioner of higher education, said the country needs to figure out how to educate the growing classes of poor students and reverse the trend.

“Lots of folks say we need to change this paradigm, but as a country, we’re not focusing on the issue,” said Bounds, who was previously Mississippi’s state school superintendent. “What we’re doing is not working. We need to get philanthropies, the feds, business leaders, everybody, together and figure this out. We need another Sputnik moment.”

—Posted by Scott Martelle.

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