For Poor Children, “It is the Economy, Stupid”

As I concluded the research for my upcoming book, The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy, I was left with the conviction that untangling and dismantling corporate free market education reform policies requires a citizen mass willing and able to speak truth to power.  Topping my list of recommendations for reclaiming our public schools in the U.S. is the following:

“When politicians or pundits begin a discussion with an assertion that the entire American public school system is a failure it is a clear indication that … they would rather target public schools for reform than engage in a meaningful discussion about how to eliminate poverty and larger social issues that are at the root of low academic achievement in some communities in America” (p. 210).

You see, for children, education reform should and must begin with efforts to eliminate poverty.  Those of us who have taught in high-poverty schools and worked with children who are the victims of our nation’s allegiance to free market economic policies know all too well that simply reforming schools and blaming teachers for low achievement doesn’t target what is really at the heart of low achievement.  A number of years ago, as I was interviewing an excellent veteran reading teacher in the Mississippi Delta, she made a poignant statement that I will never forget.  She was talking about her efforts to provide reading interventions in a school that served children living in extreme poverty.  She felt defeated and frustrated and, on this day, she was sad.  She said, “I’m trying to teach these children to read, and they’re trying to survive.”

Brett Dickerson, too, understands how high poverty rates impact students and teachers.  In August, he wrote “… schools with high poverty rates tend to wear down the best teachers and burn them out from the relentless pressures of poverty-related issues in their students.”

In my years in Mississippi working in high poverty schools I was keenly aware of how vulnerable and isolated children are when they live in impoverished communities — both urban and rural.  They are, indeed, trying to survive.  They are highly motivated to learn, but sometimes life just gets in the way.  It’s hard to concentrate when you don’t know if you’ll have anything to eat at home or you don’t know where you’ll be staying that night.  It’s hard to concentrate when your neighborhood is not a place where you can safely play.  So many of the children I taught talked about violence they’d witnessed first-hand and they were too knowledgeable about the drug culture that surrounded them every day.  On two separate occasions I saw children pick up freshly sharpened pencils and use them to pretend they were injecting themselves with drugs in the crooks of their little arms.  It broke my heart. These were very young children.  And they didn’t ask for the opportunity to be so worldly wise.

James Carville, President Clinton’s campaign manager is attributed with developing the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  It was a successful strategy and helped Clinton get elected.  However, four years later Clinton enacted his welfare reform strategy, prompting Clinton appointee Peter Edelman to publicly resign his position and write a scathing critique for The Atlantic entitled “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done.”  The nation should have listened when Edelman stated, “I am afraid … that along the way we will do some serious injury to American children, who should not have had to suffer from our national backlash.”  But the nation didn’t listen.  And children have suffered.  Peter Edelman’s wife, Marian Wright Edelman, is the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.  The Edelmans met in 1967 when Peter accompanied Senator Robert Kennedy to the Mississippi Delta and witnessed first-hand the devastating poverty in the region.  Marion Wright, then working for the NAACP, accompanied Kennedy and her future husband, Peter Edelman, as they toured impoverished communities and homes.

Marian Wright Edelman has been a stalwart voice for poor children in the United States.  The Children’s Defense Fund ceaselessly advocates for children, publishing annual reports on the state of childhood poverty in our country.

Because, of course, for children, “it is the economy, stupid.”  And for Black children, the situation is dire.  In September, 2014, the CDF provided the following analysis of childhood poverty in the U.S.:

“Poverty data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on September 16, 2014 reveal that child poverty dropped significantly for the first time since 2000, from 21.8 percent in 2012 to 19.9 percent in 2013. While child poverty decreased for Hispanic, White and Asian children, Black children saw no decrease and continue to have the highest child poverty rate. Despite some decreases child poverty among all children remains at shamefully high levels. Nearly one in five children – 14.7 million – were poor in 2013, and children remain the poorest age group in the country. Although 1.5 million fewer children were poor in 2013, there were still 1.3 million more poor children than in 2007 before the recession began.”

No amount of education reform initiatives, grit studies, or no-excuse charter schools can overcome the unwieldy noose of poverty that strengthens its grip every day on the lives of poor and vulnerable children.  Peter Edelman began his article for The Atlantic with the statement, “I hate welfare.”  I do, too.  Most of all, I hate the need for welfare and I hate the fact that it is the children who suffer the most.  For one of the wealthiest nations in the world to have nearly 20% of its children living in poverty is a national disgrace.

I am sad, too, that our politicians and education policy makers continually point to teachers and schools as the institution that has the power to overcome childhood poverty.  We cannot.

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