The November election and the focus of news reporting on President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees have made invisible some of the important challenges for children and their public schools. Those of us concerned about the nation’s roughly 90,000 public schools must, of course, pay attention to Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and we must come to understand how her beliefs and experience are likely to affect the Department of Education and the schools across America’s neighborhoods.
But anybody who believes that the DeVos-Trump plan for a $20 billion block grant program to expand vouchers and charters will solve the primary challenges for public schools is dreaming. School teachers, social workers and counselors must help children cope with their life circumstances in order that students can learn. Public schools must be equipped to address the needs of the children who walk trough their doors.
The NY Times‘ Kate Taylor reminds us about one of these primary challenges: students “living in a shelter, doubled up with relatives, in a hotel or in other transient circumstances.” In the New York City Schools, which serve over a million students, a serious problem is that severely disadvantaged students tend to be clustered in the city’s traditional public schools, not in its charters. Taylor explains: “Last year, 99,196 students in the city’s traditional public schools, or nearly 10 percent of students, were classified as being in temporary housing…. At the same time, 6,249, or roughly 7 percent, in city charter schools were in temporary housing.”
Here is how Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond defines “severe deprivation,” the living conditions of many of these homeless children: “By ‘severe deprivation,’ we mean economic hardship that is (1) acute, (2) compounded, and (3) persistent. Let us unpack these three components. Acute hardship: Life far below the poverty line, characterized by a scarcity of critical resources and material hardship… Compounded hardship: ‘Poverty plus,’ or correlated and compounded adversity. This idea speaks to the clustering of different kinds of disadvantage across multiple dimensions (psychological, social, material) and institutions (work, family, prison)… Persistent hardship: Enduring disadvantage often stubbornly impervious to change.”
Taylor documents the scope of the challenge across the regional sub-school districts in New York, a huge city where rents have skyrocketed: “(I)n at least 21 of the 29 geographic school districts in the city that have charters, every charter had a lower percentage of students in temporary housing last year than the average among the traditional public schools in the same district. In District 9 in the Bronx, for example, which had the highest concentration of students in temporary housing, 23 percent of students in the traditional public schools were in temporary housing last year…. Most charters there had percentages of homeless students in the single digits. Icahn Charter School 6 and South Bronx Classical Charter III had the highest percentage, 12 percent.”
“Students in temporary housing often struggle academically,” writes Taylor. “According to a report on New York City from the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, a policy research organization, students in temporary housing are nearly twice as likely to be chronically absent—meaning they miss at least 20 days of school—as students who are not homeless. They are also nearly three times as likely to transfer schools midyear, and they have much lower rates of academic proficiency.”
The fact that these students’ families frequently move from place to place is described by Taylor as the primary reason fewer homeless students are enrolled in charter schools. The life circumstances of these children make it virtually impossible for many of them to participate in the lotteries by which charter schools select their students: “The major cause of the disparity, most people agree, is the way charter schools admit students. By law, charter schools admit students by lottery, and most hold their lotteries in April. Many receive more applicants than they have seats available. So if a family moves between April and September, or in the middle of the school year, and is looking for a school seat in a new neighborhood, they will often be unable to get one in a charter. District schools, in contrast, more easily allow children to move between them.”
Taylor adds that some charter schools are increasingly setting aside seats for students whose families struggle to find housing, though it is rare to find charter schools that embrace the challenge of serving a large number of homeless children. “At least one charter school in the city gives a preference to homeless students: Mott Haven Academy, in the South Bronx, which was started by the New York Foundling, a social services agency. Children in foster care get priority for a third of the seats while students who are living in shelters or whose families have an open case with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services get priority for another third.”
The challenge for any school serving homeless children is that students experiencing severe deprivation have enormous needs. As such children become increasingly concentrated in traditional neighborhood schools, which must then hire social workers and other support staff, the fiscal burden on the school district grows. And as our society judges schools by their students’ aggregate test scores, we tend to identify schools with concentrations of very poor and homeless children as “failing” schools.
In its excellent (2010) book, Organizing Schools for Improvement, the Consortium on Chicago School Research documented the challenges for schools in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty: “An endemic concern for urban schoolteachers are the students in their classrooms with extraordinary personal and social needs. Many urban children live under unstable home and community circumstances, including homelessness, domestic violence, abuse, and neglect. In such circumstances, a most basic need for healthy child development—stable, dependable relationships with caring adults— may not always be present… At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best of educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused….” (pp. 172-173)
Our society is called to respond to the needs of educators serving students in circumstances of severe deprivation. Redirecting federal funding to expand the use of vouchers and charters cannot address these challenges, particularly if, as some have suggested, the money will come from Title I, whose very purpose is to provide additional federal support for schools in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods.