Among Schoolchildren

We expect a great deal from the nation’s public primary education system. Though teachers are the frequent targets of some politicians—collateral damage in an undeclared war on public sector union membership—they accept each school day the challenge of preparing the next generation of Americans for productive and meaningful lives.

Mounting evidence suggests that their jobs are only getting more difficult. The Southern Education Foundation reported in January that children growing up in poverty now make up the majority in the nation’s public schools. This conclusion is based on an analysis of statewide percentages of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, which is a somewhat imprecise measure because some schools try to avoid stigmatizing children by providing a free lunch for everyone. But the trend of growing poverty among U.S. schoolchildren has been clear for some time, and it is corroborated by other measures. The Children’s Defense Fund reports that the United States has the second highest child poverty rate among 35 industrialized countries, “despite having the largest economy in the world.”

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Five years into the economy’s uneven recovery, under- and unemployment rates remain high and wages stagnant. Too many of the nine million private-sector jobs created since the U.S. economy emerged from recession in 2009 are concentrated in low-skill and low-pay sectors. While some state and local minimum wage campaigns have scored victories, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 has been unchanged since 2009, and its buying power has diminished to a 40-year low. When parents are not doing well, their children suffer beside them. Higher numbers of children are joining the free-lunch line, especially in Southern and Western states. In Mississippi and New Mexico, nearly three-quarters of public school students now qualify for food assistance.

America has long supported mechanisms that allow more children to tap into the special resource of this nation’s Catholic schools, often incubators of opportunity in high-poverty communities, but it recognizes that addressing deficits in public schools, where most Catholic children now receive their primary education, remains an essential obligation of a vibrant and just society. Public schools have long since ceased to be places where children simply receive an education. As a consistent and dependable point of contact with children, they have become essential for assessing needs and distributing social services to children. Public schools deserve to have the resources that will allow them to successfully perform this double duty.

Unfortunately a report in 2011 from the U.S. Department of Education documented spending disparities between affluent and high-poverty school districts; more than 40 percent of the latter were significantly underfunded. This is because of the property-tax funding structure for public education, and it often means that children who are already advantaged get additional enrichment opportunities, while peers in high-poverty districts strain for the basics. In a rational society that aims for fairness and opportunity, schools in low-income communities would not only achieve parity with wealthier districts; they would be better resourced. Their students have greater obstacles to overcome. A thorough overhaul of district funding systems is an essential component of school reform.

Fighting poverty has become the surprise theme of the approaching 2016 presidential campaign, and during his recent State of the Union address, President Obama positioned himself as a builder of a middle-class economy that will improve the standard of living for all. The focus on reducing poverty and shoring up the middle class is welcome, but unless systemic modifications can make it through Congress, it is all just talk. (Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, a proposal that enjoys bipartisan support, might be a good place to start.)

Growing child poverty should raise alarms among political leaders and public policymakers. It suggests that the nation as a whole did not prepare a previous generation, who are now raising their own children, for a modern workforce that increasingly requires quality education. However either party chooses to respond to middle-class decline in the United States, creating fairness and opportunity for all begins with improving public education.

Defending improvements in public education, advocates note the important role today’s schoolchildren will eventually play as tomorrow’s working and tax-paying adults. But children are more than just potential cogs in the machinery of the nation’s workforce. They have the right to expect the adult world to look out for them and provide them the best start in life possible—not because we all will someday depend on them, but because it is our God-given duty to them, one that should be borne with love and hope, not shouldered with resentment or indifference.

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Andrew Russell
2 years 8 months ago
Thank you very much for the support for public school education. I have been an advocate for public schools since early in my ministry career when I was privileged to participate in community organizing for local school boards in Chicago in the late 80's and early 90's. This is the first time that I have seen the issue of justice in public education advocated in a major Catholic publication. Are there other articles / editorials in major catholic publications that you could direct me to?
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 8 months ago
"…creating fairness and opportunity for all begins with improving public education." So true. There are very strong correlations between literacy skills and income/wealth, and the number of functionally illiterate adults in America is now 20%+. See http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/left-behind One encouraging development in the nation's largest public school district: Vergara v. California http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/12/opinion/in-california-a-judge-takes-on-teacher-tenure.html?referrer=&_r=1 and two interesting pieces from a journal read by many Catholics: http://www.wsj.com/articles/denisha-merriweather-how-i-learned-not-to-hate-school-1414019224 www.wsj.com/articles/miracle-on-24th-street-1413242459 Peace.
Gene Van Son
2 years 8 months ago
The Feral Government has no role in Education. Absolutely none. Read the Constitution. The Department of Education should be disbanded. In 1979 the Department of Education had an annual budget of $14.5 billion. Today its budget is in excess of $70 billion, yet there have been no appreciable increases in test scores or graduation rates. Education should be left up to each community.
Elisabeth Anderson
2 years 8 months ago
Little can be changed until we face what has not worked. Sending billions to the Federal Government (to what purpose?) to be sieved through a bureaucratic morass and then redistributed to the states is not helping students learn better or succeed in school. Our Catholic Social Teaching of Subsidiarity should inform our view on how are the issues in education best addressed. Clearly more money on its own is not working. Among public school districts that receive the highest per student funding are the lowest performing schools in urban areas, even our nation's Capital. I understand the desire to bring up the level of schools in low income areas to that of higher income areas. This can better be done at a state or local level than in Washington DC. Further schools cannot make up for what is behind many students' inability to succeed and that is chaotic, unformed or missing families. The increase in poor performance coorelates to the increasing single motherhood, lack of father involvement, the poverty and chaos that this life creates. We should not expect the schools to do what society cannot do and that is to encourage strong families. Catholic Social Teaching would be such a benefit in society overall but because the word "Catholic" is attached to it, political leaders ignore the truth and effectiveness of this approach, instead asking for more money for yet another unproven, ineffective or wasteful government program.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 8 months ago
The divorce rate is nearly 50% for those with less than a high school diploma. For those with a Bachelor’s degree, the divorce rate drops to almost 25%. I have also heard of notably lower divorce rates in marriages where both spouses are union members.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 8 months ago
In all respect of your belief “Education should be left up to each community,” the Department of Education’s $70 billion budget is less than the endowment total of Harvard, Yale and Stanford. The “smart money” at Harvard, Yale and Stanford perhaps should be a guide for all US education budgets.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 8 months ago
One comment below notes, “…schools cannot make up for what is behind many students' inability to succeed and that is chaotic, unformed or missing families.” Deep red states perhaps confirm the assertion. Deep red states lead with poverty of 52% compared to 44% in deep blue states. Divorce rates in deep red states run 25% higher than in deep blue states.
Abigail Woods-Ferreira
2 years 8 months ago
Children from the lowest economic brackets are also much more likely to rise to higher economic brackets and have more social and economic mobility in the "blue" states. While family structure and home life certainly play a role in academic and economic success, so do social spending and programs, access to jobs and transportation, and tolerance and openness to diversity that living in densely populated, more "liberal" areas provide. There are far more roads out of poverty in places like New York City than in many parts of "red" America, with the booming industry in the upper Midwest an exception. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/22/business/in-climbing-income-ladder-location-matters.html?pagewanted=all
Tom Fields
2 years 8 months ago
More money is not the answer. In the US, more than half of all children born are born out of wedlock. Almost 75% of African-American children are born out of wedlock. There is a corrosive impact on children being raised without family structure. In 48 States out of 50 African-American students have the highest drop-out rate. We now have multiple generations on multiple welfare programs---which is a destructive phenomenon. IF--you graduate from High School, do not marry until you graduate from High School and do not have a child out of wedlock---YOUR CHANCES OF LIVING IN POVERTY ARE EXTREMELY SMALL. Increasing the EITC will not help the school children.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 8 months ago
Readers perhaps should note deep blue state residents are 33% more likely to have bachelors, graduate or a professional degree than residents of deep red states.
Egberto Bermudez
2 years 8 months ago
New Although child poverty is a very complex issue, and the breakup of families have played a devastating role in the lives of children, the improvement of education, and of public education is part of the solution. It is a fact that most children (including most Catholic children) are educated in public schools. Hence, the issues that you raise in this editorial are crucial. I fully agree with the following paragraph: “America has long supported mechanisms that allow more children to tap into the special resource of this nation’s Catholic schools, often incubators of opportunity in high-poverty communities, but it recognizes that addressing deficits in public schools, where most Catholic children now receive their primary education, remains an essential obligation of a vibrant and just society. Public schools have long since ceased to be places where children simply receive an education. As a consistent and dependable point of contact with children, they have become essential for assessing needs and distributing social services to children. Public schools deserve to have the resources that will allow them to successfully perform this double duty.”
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 8 months ago
Poverty in “Right to Work” states runs 52% compared to 44% in states without “Right to Work”.
Theodore Seeber
2 years 8 months ago
The number one cause of childhood poverty is single parenthood. Why don't we do something about the sad state of marriage?
2 years 8 months ago
Great editorial. Thanks for making this point.

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