Education 50 Years Since the War on Poverty

Education

This is the fifth in a series of First Focus blog posts commemorating the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and offering modern ways to continue fighting child poverty.

Fifty years after President Johnson declared a war on poverty we are faced with “a new majority,” as a report of the same name from the Southern Education Foundation shows. Nearly half of American students in school from kindergarten through grade 12 receive free or reduced price lunch. This means that 48 percent of all students in this country come from families living below 185 percent of the poverty line (income of about $34,000 per year for a family of four). Disproportionately more students of color live in low-income households than their white peers and no state has fewer than a quarter of their students living in low-income households. When President Johnson signed the Childhood Nutrition Act in 1966 to expand the National School Lunch Program to include school breakfast, he reportedly said “good food is essential to good learning.” While this holds true today and we can and should do more to ensure no child goes hungry, we also know that it takes more than just good food for students living near or below the poverty line to have “good learning.”

In the past 50 years the country has indeed made great strides in lowering child poverty. Another part of the War on Poverty was the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is meant to ensure that all students, regardless of race or income, receive a great public education. As part of the Civil Rights movement, President Johnson passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which established the Department of Education and worked to ensure that all students, regardless of race, receive a great public education. Now we have the highest high school graduation rate in 30 years. But, just as the policies that reduce child poverty do not go far enough and we are still faced with unacceptably high child poverty rates, inequalities in public education based on race and income are still a major issue.

Though children living in or near poverty often have the good food that President Johnson correctly described as important, at least when they are in school, they still experience toxic stress (which continues to affect children well beyond their early years), instability, community violence, and other environmental hazards like lack of heat in their homes. What does this all mean for children’s education? Higher rates of absenteeism; inability to concentrate on schoolwork; increased likelihood of depression; reduced motivation, determination, cognition, and memory; diminished social skills; and ultimately lower academic achievement and a higher risk of not finishing high school. In other words, we are still working to end the inequality of opportunity that plagues public school and effectively creates a two-tiered system of public education.

This inequality is apparent when examining results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). While results from standardized tests like the PISA should always be taken with a large grain of salt, in the results we can see some generalities about public education in the US and how we compare to counties around the world. While this test is given to measure and compare entire countries’ academic achievement, three individual states also participated in the 2012 PISA: Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Florida, and these three states reveal the opportunity gap between low-income students and their wealthier peers. Massachusetts and Connecticut did better than the international average and the US as a whole in all subjects, while Florida was below both the international and US average scores. This divide is not surprising. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, 33 and 34 percent of students, respectively, receive free or reduced price school meals, compared to 56 percent of students in Florida. Though Florida faced with educating more students from low-income families, the state does not contribute as many resources to K-12 education as the two New England states. Connecticut and Massachusetts are ranked 7th and 8th, respectively, in state spending per pupil enrolled in public school, while Florida is ranked 46th.

While policymakers pursue effective strategies to decrease child poverty, schools can help mitigate the effects of living in low-income families and communities for their students to narrow the achievement gap and increase graduation rates even more. For example, schools can use the community school strategy to bring important services, such as vision clinics and mentor services, for students who face the myriad challenges of poverty into the school so students can access those services easily without missing class. Dual enrollment schools allow students to earn college credit while working toward their high school diplomas and have proved effective at re-engaging disconnected youth and increasing college entrance, and this is only one strategy for re-engaging disconnected youth. Effectively training teachers to teach the highest need students and ensuring that those students have highly trained and experienced teachers will also help close the achievement gap. These strategies will help mitigate the effects of poverty and increase equity in public schools, two goals that are at least 50 years old but that this country is still pursuing. If the country pursues these policies and policies proven to fight poverty we can finally realize these goals and ensure America’s continued competitiveness in a global economy.