The pink elephant in the education debate

The pink elephant in the education debate

- in Fitzsimon File

There finally seems to be a consensus emerging among all but the most strident anti-public school zealots that it is a bad idea to create schools with a high percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

High poverty schools face a number of challenges including adequate resources, attracting the best teachers, and students who are less likely to be ready to learn when they arrive at school.

Even Wake School Superintendent Tony Tata, hired by the right-wing majority on the Wake County Board of Education, openly acknowledges that creating high poverty schools is a problem and claims that his still fuzzy student assignment plan takes that into account.

Tata and other policymakers realize that study after study show that children do not perform as well in high poverty schools and that there is a strong correlation between family income and an individual student’s performance. That is simply beyond dispute.

It doesn’t mean kids from low-income families can’t learn. Some manage to do well in spite of their circumstances. But they are the exception not the rule.

There is no silver bullet to address this in the classroom, though studies are also clear that students do better in schools that are balanced and diverse, a point entirely lost on the members of the Wake School Board majority and the right-wing forces that support them.

That debate rages on and the school board election in Wake County is the latest battleground.

An even larger question continues to go unasked in virtually every education “reform” debate that generally includes proposals like expanding charter schools, changing teacher employment rules, even privatizing public schools with a voucher scheme like the one House Majority Leader Paul Stam proposed this legislative session.

If most people now agree that poverty is a significant part of the problem, then why do the education “reformers” never talk about addressing poverty?

National education scholar and advocate Diane Ravitch wonders too and says all the talk about privatization and reforming teacher tenure will not improve student performance and are likely to make things worse, especially for children from low-income families.

Ravitch should know. She used to a prominent member of the conservative self-proclaimed education reform movement but has changed her mind. Ravitch was in the Triangle recently and told NC Policy Watch that it is clear that poverty is the real problem in education.

She is right and the problem is growing. Recent data from the Census Bureau shows that one in four children in North Carolina lived in poverty in 2010, a 19 percent increase since 2007.

The stunning news was reported matter-of-factly by most media outlets if it was reported at all, and prompted little discussion much less outrage from the same policymakers so eager to dismantle public schools in the name of reform.

The new poverty figures come in a year in which state lawmakers made deep cuts to early preschool programs that help children in low-income families so they won’t be so far behind when they show up for kindergarten.

The Republican General Assembly didn’t stop there. They also ripped new holes in the social safety net so important to low- income families as they struggle to escape from poverty’s grasp.

The claims by legislative leaders that they protected public schools has been repeatedly proven false by widespread accounts of teacher layoffs and deep cuts to programs that support classroom instruction. But the cuts to Smart Start and More at Four and vital human services are really education cuts too.

Poverty is indeed the biggest problem that North Carolina and the nation face in trying to provide a quality education for every child.

That’s why the best way in the long run to avoid the problem of high poverty schools and to improve student achievement is to reduce poverty.

Too bad the current legislative leadership is making things worse.