Poor kids in schools is a poverty problem, not an education policy problem
Yesterday’s Washington Post rightly drew attention to facts that have been clear to education and poverty researchers for years: too many of America’s children live in low-income households, particularly in the South and Southwest, and in urban areas. In 2011, 48 percent of public school students nationwide, and a majority of public school children in southern and western states, were eligible for free or reduced price lunch.
Large fractions of poor or low-income children in schools is not really an education problem; it’s a poverty problem. And as the map below suggests, poverty is often specific to certain places, states, or even neighborhoods. In many of those places, especially in the South, families and children have a much harder time escaping poverty. So the real question is: What can we do about poverty and place?
Map source: Southern Education Foundation
“[A]s a country, we’re not focusing on the issue,” Hank Bounds, commissioner of higher education for the state of Mississippi, laments in the Post’s article. “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.”
But we’ve had more than one Sputnik moment on poverty. President Johnson began the War on Poverty, and President Clinton ended welfare as we knew it. President Obama called for a new kind of bold, collaborative, comprehensive intervention when he launched his Promise Neighborhoods initiative.
Promise Neighborhoods, designed along the lines of the Harlem Children’s Zone and led in part by the Urban Institute*, flood an entire community with resources focused around high-quality instruction and support in schools. They can also provide a host of other services, such as before- and after-school child care, health and nutrition assistance, and even job search and training assistance for parents.
A major component is using data to inform activity on the ground, improve services on the fly, and coordinate efforts so a child leaving one program does not slip through the cracks. Not everyone seems to understand the importance of data, but it is crucial to the alignment sought by Promise Neighborhoods to improve outcomes faster than a handful of unaligned programs can.
The idea of comprehensive, place-based initiatives like Promise, the multi-pronged Choice Neighborhoods programs, and others is to provide low-income children the resources they need to succeed during every part of their day, for their whole childhoods. In other words, they are efforts to mimic the support and resource structures of their middle- and high-income peers.
Because education is largely the domain of the states, Promise Neighborhoods offers a way for the federal government to help improve some of the nation’s poorest schools. And better schools can improve economic mobility and give poor children a better chance to escape poverty.