HALL MONITOR — We have failed our children, and the consequences are spreading
September 1, 2016
By Jay Bullock
After a summer with fire and an uprising in Milwaukee, I’m going to open this first column of the school year with a paradox. There has never been a better time in American history to be a child, but we have utterly failed in our responsibilities to our children.
Let me explain. Today, the median American child is doing great. In general, test scores are up, as are expectations for students, graduation rates, and college attendance rates. Childhood mortality is down, as are juvenile crime, teen pregnancies, and rates of adolescent smoking, drinking, and drug abuse. We’re raising, by any metric, the smartest and healthiest generation of American children ever.
But not every child is the median child. As in almost every other aspect of American life, there exists a clear dichotomy. On the one hand, children in America’s wealthier families and communities experience tremendous advantage and success. On the other, America’s poorer families and communities fall further and further behind.
According to a study last year by the Urban Institute, nearly 40 percent of all American children will live in poverty for at least one year before the age of 18. That number is 75 percent for African American children.
Each year data show more than two million American children experience a period of homelessness and more than 15 million face food insecurity. Again, these hit minority children at a much higher rate.
Children who spend any time at all in poverty are significantly less likely to finish high school. Unlike the median American child, they will not be graduating or going to college in record numbers.
That alone should explain why I believe we failed our children, but it is much worse than that. This failure is not just real and consequential, it is baked into the very fabric of American civic and political life.
Decades ago this country entered into a kind of tacit agreement with itself. We looked around and saw poverty, racial and economic segregation, a crime epidemic, blighted cities and backward small towns, and a host of other social ills that needed curing. And we decided, through some kind of subliminal consensus, that we would solve those social ills through education.
America’s public schools, we agreed, could handle this work.
The evidence is everywhere. “Education is the only way out of poverty!” — how often have you heard someone declare that? Those who make this claim are surely earnest. As poverty falls, they believe, other problems will also begin to vanish — an educated populace is an employed, law-abiding, healthy, socially responsible populace.
But at this point in our grand experiment to let schooling fix everything, it should be clear that it doesn’t actually work that way, that, instead, we need policy solutions that work outside the classroom rather than within it.
Or, if we insist on keeping to the plan, schools must be given adequate resources to overcome barriers like poverty that make educating America’s poorer children much more difficult.
There was a time when the plan to use schools to fix our problems was still moderately new, when the country did invest heavily in school funding. Starting around 1980 and continuing through the go-go economy of the 1990s, average per-pupil funding more than doubled when adjusted for inflation. Much of that came from increased federal Title I spending that was targeted for schools with high-poverty populations.
This made a difference. According to a new report by the Shanker Institute, spending levels affect student achievement. “In direct tests of the relationship between financial resources and student outcomes,” they report, “money matters.” School funding is key in everything from student-teacher ratios to upkeep of buildings. A Cornell University study this year found that building conditions strongly influence student achievement.
On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, known as “the nation’s report card,” math and reading scores increased significantly through the 1980s and 1990s, especially among younger students. Achievement gaps between wealthy, white students and other groups closed.
Since 2000, though, per-pupil funding has fallen across the nation. On NAEP tests, the gaps have stopped narrowing.
According to an August report by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, here in Wisconsin, three-quarters of school districts are receiving less state aid now than prior to the recent financial crisis, forcing record numbers of districts to place funding referenda on the ballot. High-poverty areas like Milwaukee don’t have that option and are falling further behind wealthier neighbors.
Milwaukee is not alone. This summer we saw racial tensions here boil over into sometimes-violent unrest, as has happened in cities nationwide over the last few years. While sparked specifically by police actions in minority communities, underlying all of the protests, including Milwaukee’s, is the incontrovertible fact that these communities have not just been mistreated, but actively starved of resources.
And because we still have our expectation that schools and schools alone must do the work of fixing society’s problems, blame for the persistence of these issues is placed squarely upon underfunded districts like the Milwaukee Public Schools. You can’t swing a badger by the tail in the state capitol building without hitting one of the legislators who has attacked MPS and threatened to strip the district of even more resources.
Therein lies our great failure: At a time when the average American child is better off than ever, we have abandoned our obligations to those children who most need our help.
If we are going to keep expecting America’s schools to solve America’s problems, we have to give schools the resources to do it, and quickly. We have only just begun to see how the consequences of our failure to do so are spreading beyond test scores and classrooms and into the streets.
Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School and thinks his Twitter jokes are funny:
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