Inequality Continues to Trouble New Jersey’s Schools Despite Gains from “Abbott v. Burke”

At a debriefing of the film, Backpack Full of Cash, which was recently screened in our community, the most probing questions arose about David Kirp’s depiction of the schools in Union City, New Jersey.  How could a poor city afford the universal preschool, small classes and personalized attention the film portrayed?  How could Union City afford to turn around its schools this way?  For Ohioans who watched the film, it seemed a miracle.

David Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.  His fine book, Improbable Scholars, explains part of the answer: “Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. But the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the country’s report card.  The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007, something no other state has come close to accomplishing.” (p. 85)

So how does New Jersey have enough money to fund its schools adequately even in its poorest communities?  The Education Law Center, which has litigated the school funding case of Abbott v. Burke, describes the history of the case: “In 1981, the Education Law Center filed a complaint in Superior Court on behalf of 20 children attending public schools in the cities of Camden, East Orange, Irvington, and Jersey City.  The lawsuit challenged New Jersey’s system of financing public education under the Public School Education Act of 1975… The case eventually made it’s way to the N.J. Supreme Court, which, in 1985, issued the first Abbott decision (Abbott I) transferring the case to an administrative law judge for an initial hearing. In 1990, in Abbott II, the N.J. Supreme Court upheld the administrative law judge’s ruling, finding the State’s school funding law unconstitutional as applied to children in 28 ‘poorer urban’ school districts. That number was later expanded to 31… The Court’s ruling directed the Legislature to amend or enact a new law to ‘assure’ funding for the urban districts: 1) at the foundation level ‘substantially equivalent’ to that in the successful suburban districts; and 2) ‘adequate’ to provide for the supplemental programs necessary to address the extreme disadvantages of urban schoolchildren. The Court ordered this new funding mechanism be in place for the following school year, 1991-92.”

Abbott v. Burke has been challenged repeatedly and continues to be challenged—most recently in Abbott XX and Abbott XXI, but the New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld the extra funding for New Jersey’s Abbott districts. One of the provisions of the remedy in this case is the guarantee of enriched preschool in all of New Jersey’s Abbott school districts.

In Improbable Scholars, Kirp describes how the school district in Union City invested its Abbott remedy dollars: “Every dollar went to improve instruction. Class sizes shrank, teachers receive training in everything from ESL to project-driven learning, specialists were hired to work one-on-one with teachers, and all the schools were wired with a computer for every three students.” (pp. 85-86)  “In the first phases of the Abbott. v. Burke litigation, the New Jersey Supreme Court focused exclusively on K-12. Later on, however, the justices were persuaded by mountains of evidence that good preschool was essential if children living in the state’s poorest communities, who started kindergarten well behind their better-off peers, were going to have a truly equal chance of success. Thanks to the Court’s 1998 ruling, every three-and four-year-old who lives in an ‘Abbott district’ is entitled to attend a high-quality prekindergarten.” (p. 108)

The challenges for very poor children remain overwhelming in our society that remains highly segregated both racially and economically. Despite Kirp’s optimism, many of the challenges for New Jersey’s poorest children remain unaddressed, according to New Jersey Spotlight, which covered a new report from the Fund for New Jersey that criticizes Chris Christie’s administration for under-funding the Abbott remedy and points out that New Jersey remains “one of the most segregated states in the country.”

In its new report, the Fund for New Jersey documents a set of ongoing problems that undermine opportunity for poor children and black and brown children no matter where they live in today’s America—including New Jersey, despite the educational investment mandated in the Abbott remedy:  “New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation but our schools do not reflect our state demographics. Instead, many districts reflect population concentrations of poor and minority students while other districts serve primarily wealthy and white students. Even within districts that have more diverse student bodies overall, racial disparities can be found among the district schools. The achievement gaps between and within districts reflect deep-rooted divides. Our state’s record is paradoxical: New Jersey has the nation’s strongest constitutional and legal framework for integration of the public schools and is among those states that are the most segregated on the ground. ”

Former New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz spoke at the press conference earlier this week where the Fund for New Jersey released its report.  Justice Poritz reflects on the remaining challenges poverty and racial segregation pose for New Jersey’s children even despite the considerable impact of the Abbott remedy: “In some ways, we are the best education system in America… In some ways, it is the worst… the very bottom… We have come a long way… but the Legislature never fulfilled the promise… We need educated children, we need an educated workforce.  If you want these things, you may need to take some pain… You may be willing to be taxed more, you may be willing to swallow hard.”

Justice Poritz describes Abbott v. Burke and the state’s subsequent investment in the education its children as “a start.”

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Noticing and Helping Our Poorest Children and Their Public Schools

If you take a driving vacation and you use a laptop instead of a smartphone, you soon learn that the best place to find Wi-Fi in little towns is in the parking lot of the public library.  You don’t have to arrive during the hours when the library is open, and you can even sit in your car to check your e-mail or the news as long as you park very near the building, because the library’s Wi-Fi service is accessible beyond the walls of the building. I know this from long experience looking at e-mail in public library parking lots from Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Red Lodge, Montana, to Laurelville, Ohio.  In our family, of course, we have broadband service at home and we need to use the library parking lot only on special occasions. But what about the people who lack this basic service?

In the New York Times last week, Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library wrote about internet access as a necessity. He explains that last year, the Federal Communications Commission declared: “Access to broadband is necessary to be a productive member of society. In June, a federal appeals court upheld the commission’s authority to regulate the internet as a public utility.”  But Marx, writing from New York City, describes what life is like for children in families who cannot afford the internet: “Here in the world’s information capital, New Yorkers are still scrounging for a few bars of web access, dropped like crumbs from a table. With broadband costing on average $55 per month, 25 percent of all households and 50 percent of those making less than $20,000 lack this service at home.”  Marx describes New York City’s children from his perspective at the library: “All summer, kids have been hanging out in front of the Morris Park Library in the Bronx, before opening hours and after closing.  They bring their computers to pick up the Wi-Fi signal that is leaking out of the building, because they can’t afford internet access at home. They’re there during the school year, too, even during the winter—it’s the only way they can complete their online math homework… People line up, sometimes for hours, to use the library system’s free computers. Go into any library in the nation and you’ll most likely see the same thing. They come to do what so many of us take for granted: apply for government services, study or do research, talk with family or friends, inform themselves as voters, and just participate in our society and culture—so much of which now takes place online.”

I thought about Marx’s column in conjunction with two other articles in the New York Times last week.  In The Millions of Americans Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Barely Mention: The Poor,  Binyamin Appelbaum explains that the presidential candidates’ “platforms are markedly different in details and emphasis, (but) the candidates have this in common: Both promise to help Americans find jobs; neither has said much about helping people while they are not working.”  Appelbaum quotes Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond: “We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda.”

Then there was Susan Dynarski’s piece that explores the way our society uses imprecise data to measure poverty among students at school: “A closer look reveals that the standard measure of economic disadvantage—whether a child is eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch in school masks the magnitude of the learning gap between the richest and poorest children.  Nearly half of students nationwide are eligible for a subsidized meal in school. Children whose families earn less than 185 percent of the poverty threshold are eligible for a reduced-price lunch, while those below 130 percent get a free lunch. For a family of four, the cutoffs are $32,000 for a free lunch and $45,000 for a reduced price one. By way of comparison, median household income in the United States was about $54,000 in 2014… The National Assessment of Education Progress, often called the Nation’s Report Card, publishes students’ scores by eligibility for subsidized meals. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, districts have reported scores separately for disadvantaged children, with eligibility for subsidized meals serving as the standard measure of disadvantage.”

Dynarski is a professor at the University of Michigan, and she describes student poverty in her state: “In Michigan, as in the rest of the country, about half of eighth graders in public schools receive a free or reduced-price lunch. But when we look more closely, we see that just 14 percent have been eligible for subsidized meals every year since kindergarten. These children are the poorest of the poor—the persistently disadvantaged… (I)n fact, there is a nearly linear, negative relationship between the number of years of economic disadvantage and math scores in eighth grade… It appears that years spent eligible for subsidized school meals serves as a good proxy for the depth of disadvantage. When we look back on the early childhood of persistently disadvantaged eighth graders, we see that by kindergarten they were already far poorer than their classmates.” Dynarkski recommends that we find a more accurate way to identify the children whose needs are greatest.

In his introduction to an issue of the  Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences that focuses on severe deprivation in America, Matthew Desmond aims to be more precise in defining degrees of poverty in our society: “Poverty is qualitatively different from ‘deep poverty’ (half below the poverty line), which in turn is a world apart from ‘extreme poverty’ (living on $2 a day)… There is poverty and then there is poverty… By ‘severe deprivation,’ we mean economic hardship that is (1) acute, (2) compounded, and (3) persistent.” Desmond adds that most of our public policy to address poverty was developed so long ago that it fails to address today’s realities: “Most research is rooted in theories now a few decades old…. developed before the United States began incarcerating more of its citizens than any other nation; before urban rents soared and poor families began dedicating the majority of their income to housing; before welfare reform caused caseloads to plummet….  In recent years, the very nature of poverty in America has changed, especially at the very bottom.”

Susan Dynarsky is not the first researcher to explore the importance of accurately measuring and addressing extreme poverty in public schools.  In the 2010 book, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Anthony Bryk and colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research studied Chicago’s public schools to locate the particular schools that serve many children who are experiencing what Dynarski and Desmond describe as persistent and severe deprivation. Here are the characteristics of the 46 schools they identified in Chicago that were far more severely challenged than surrounding schools (many of which serve relatively poor neighborhoods). Truly disadvantaged schools were 90-100 percent African American. “These schools served neighborhoods characterized by extreme rates of poverty.  On average, 70 percent of residents living in the neighborhoods around these 46 schools had incomes below the poverty line, and the median family income in 1990 was only $9,480.  In 6 out of 10 of these schools, more than 50 percent of the students lived in pubic housing.” The schools featured what the researchers call a “consolidation of socioeconomic disadvantage and racial segregation.”  “Many confronted an extraordinary concentration of student needs, including students who were homeless, in foster care, or living in contexts of neglect, abuse, and domestic violence.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp 23-24)

So… what are today’s federal prescriptions for such schools—the schools in every city that serve the very poorest children?  For the past two decades the demanded reforms have included closing the school and turning it over to a charter school or a management company, firing the principal and many teachers, and considering the students’ test scores as a good part of the formal teacher evaluation mechanism.  Many of these same punishments have become the accepted strategies for school reform across our big cities, and are likely to continue even though in the Every Student Succeeds Act the federal government is stepping back a bit from dictating mandatory prescriptions.

As Susan Dynarski explains, despite our capacity now days to make education data-driven, we haven’t even instituted a precise way to measure childhood poverty. And as Matthew Desmond points out, our public policies are not designed to address the real crisis of today’s childhood poverty.  A discussion of these very painful and controversial matters is not really part of the political agenda of either of our major political parties.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research outlines very concrete school improvement strategies to support the people working in the most stressed schools.  Many school districts are also expanding the number of full-service, wraparound Community Schools designed to house medical, dental, and mental health services, after school enrichment for children, job training for parents—social and medical services—right in the school building. We need to recognize that these are an excellent beginning.

But we also need to recognize that local institutions like public libraries and public elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools are struggling to support children trapped in a level of poverty invisible to many of us unless we happen to walk by a public library where, at 7 o’clock in the morning, children are sitting on the steps trying to finish their homework with the Wi-Fi access they can find right outside the library.