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The Southern Education Foundation reports, based on the latest federal data, that the majority of students–51%–in American public schools qualify for free/reduced price lunch, which is the federal definition of poverty. There is a large difference between reduced price lunch and free lunch, in terms of income, as you will see if you look at the federal guidelines. Under these guidelines, a family of four qualifies for free lunch if its annual income is $23,850. A family of four qualifies for reduced price lunch with an annual income of $44,123. It is always useful when comparing the demographics of schools to see what percentage of the students are “free lunch,” which means that family income is very low, as compared to “reduced price lunch.” The Southern Education Foundation counts students who qualify for either free or reduced price lunch as “low income,” which is appropriate.
In 40 of the 50 states, low income students comprised no less than 40 percent of all public schoolchildren. In 21 states, children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches were a majority of the students in 2013.
Most of the states with a majority of low income students are found in the South and the West. Thirteen of the 21 states with a majority of low income students in 2013 were located in the South, and six of the other 21 states were in the West.
Mississippi led the nation with the highest rate: 71 percent, almost three out of every four public school children in Mississippi, were low-income. The nation’s second highest rate was found in New Mexico, where 68 percent of all public school students were low income in 2013.
“Reformers” think that testing and charter schools are the best way to combat poverty. They often say that we must “fix” schools before we address poverty. They say we must create many charters and voucher programs so that students can overcome poverty on their own. Yet the evidence is clear that charters and vouchers do not, on average, outperform public schools, and often are worse in terms of test scores. “Reformers” also say that if students have low test scores, their teachers must be held “accountable,” i.e., fired, based on the assumption that the teacher is the cause of low test scores or low growth scores.
None of the reformer policies make sense. Scores on standardized tests are highly correlated with family income. The best way to improve test scores is to address the root cause of low scores, which is family income–or lack thereof. Children who live in poverty are less likely to have regular or timely medical care, less likely to have educated parents, less likely to live in a stable neighborhood, more likely to miss school because of illness, more likely to be hungry, more likely to be homeless. Taking tests more frequently, taking tests annually, having intense test prep, does not change the conditions of their lives.
Certainly, schools matter, and teachers make a difference in the lives of children. We must do whatever we can to help children of every background succeed in school. Because test scores are lower in schools where most children are low-income, these children are likely to have an intense regimen of test prep and testing and less likely to have the arts, physical education, field trips, projects, and the kinds of school experiences that make kids want to come to school. All children too need the opportunity to play in a band, dance, draw, sing, make videos, participate in exercise and sports, learn a foreign language, and use their imaginations. Yet test prep eats up the time, making it less likely that children of low-income will have these opportunities.
Some low-income children will succeed no matter what the obstacles in their lives, but they are outliers. Sending more low-income students to college is a wonderful goal, but it does not address the persistence of poverty and deepening income inequality as a structural feature of American society. High expectations are important, but they can’t take the place of jobs and social supports for families in need. Sadly, our policymakers are unwilling to tackle the biggest problem in our society today, which is poverty and inequality. Anyone who truly puts “students first” would insist on reducing poverty; anyone who acts “for the kids” would demand action to improve the conditions of their lives. More testing will not reduce poverty; it is a dodge and an escape from responsibility.