Southern Education Foundation Documents Poverty Concentration in Cities

Educator Mike Rose and historian Michael B. Katz describe the greatest problem for public education in America: “Throughout American history, inequality—refracted most notably through poverty and race—has impinged on the ability of children to learn and of teachers to do their jobs.” [Michael B. Katz and Mike Rose, editors, Public Education Under Siege (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), p. 228].   The Southern Education Foundation (SEF) documented these trends again last week in a new report, A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South and Nation.

There has been considerable discussion of SEF’s finding that the majority of public school children in both the southern and western regions of the United States now qualify for free and reduced lunch, classifying them as low income.  (For children to qualify for reduced price lunch, for a family of four income must be $42,643 or less.  Students who qualify for free lunch live in families whose income, for a family of four, is under $30,000.  While these numbers are, of course, higher than the federal poverty level which is just under $23,000 annually, they are an indicator of what can barely be stretched sustainably to meet the family’s needs, including housing, food, transportation, child care, and medical costs.)

What I find even more troubling than the stark data about poverty in America’s South and West, however, is the report’s documentation, once again, of poverty concentration across America’s cities: “The nation’s cities have the highest rates of low income students in public schools.  Sixty percent of the public school children in America’s cities were in low income households in 2011. In 38 of the 50 states, no less than half of all children attending public schools in cities… were low income.”  According to the report, low-income children make up 83 percent of all children in Mississippi’s cities, 78 percent in New Jersey’s cities, 75 percent in Pennsylvania’s cities, and 73 percent in New York’s cities.  In Georgia, Louisiana, Illinois and Oklahoma, according to the report, poor children make up more than 70 percent of the public school enrollment in cities.

This is, of course, not new information. We know from Thomas Timar at the University of California at Davis that, “While manifestations of the achievement gap are to be found in rural, suburban, and urban areas, the evidence is rather compelling that the achievement gap is largely a problem of urban education…  Black children are more likely to live in conditions of concentrated poverty… Child poverty rose in nearly every city from 1970-1990… Urban students are more than twice as likely to attend high-poverty schools…  In 1990, the child poverty rate for the United States as a whole was 18 percent. For the ten worst cities it was between 40 and 58 percent.” [Narrowing the Achievement Gap (Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2012) p. 232] The census tells us that although 12 percent of white children in the United States are poor, 39 percent of Black children and 35 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty—more than a third in both of those groups.

Standardized test scores are and have always served in large part as a wealth indicator: “as a group, students labeled as economically disadvantaged or poor never score higher on standardized tests than their non-disadvantaged peers in any state on any grade level currently tested under NCLB.” [Tienken and Zhao, “How Common Standards and Standardized Testing Widen the Opportunity Gap,” in Closing the Opportunity Gap (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 112.]  And from long-time education researcher David Berliner:  “For reasons that are hard to fathom, too many people believe that in education the exceptions are the rule… These stories of triumph by individuals who were born poor, or success by educators who changed the lives of their students, are widely believed narratives…  But in fact, these are simply myths that help us feel good to be American… But the general case is that poor people stay poor and that teachers and schools serving impoverished youth do not often succeed in changing the life chances for their students.”

Our society continues to become increasingly segregated not only by race but also by income with the rich living near each other and the poor concentrated in intergenerational ghettos.  Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon documents here that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods.  Fewer families now live in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrates here that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, is now 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and is now twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

And yet, with all this research to demonstrate that poverty and inequality are serious problems, we continue to have a school reform policy being pushed across the states from the U.S. Department of Education that punishes urban schools in impoverished neighborhoods where  standardized test scores continue to lag.  Our school reform policy is being driven by the conditions required for states and school districts to apply for federal funds through the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant and No Child Left Behind waivers.  To qualify, school districts must promise to institute punitive turnarounds for schools unable to raise scores, turnaround plans that include school closure, rapid privatization through the opening of charter schools, and punishments for teachers based on their students’ scores. For example, over 90 percent of the students affected in Chicago by the recent closing of 50 elementary schools and the relocation of the students are poor and African American.

The danger is that policies that close and privatize public education in America’s poorest urban neighborhoods where poverty is deeply concentrated are destroying public education and further damaging the life chances of what the Southern Education Foundation has again identified as poor children segregated together in our cities.

Here is what Diane Ravitch warns : “The federal regulations are like quicksand: the more schools struggle, the deeper they sink into the morass of test-based accountability.  As worried families abandon these schools, they increasingly enroll disproportionate numbers of the most disadvantaged students, either children with special needs or new immigrants….  Low grades on the state report card may send a once-beloved school into a death spiral.” (Reign of Error [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), pp. 319-320].