Barriers That Keep Poor Kids out of School

Sometimes students miss school because they don't have clean uniforms. Their parents cannot afford detergent or even enough quarters to do a load of laundry.

"A lot of schools have a few backup uniforms," said Kathryn Scheinberg Meyer, an attorney with the Center for Children's Advocacy, an organization that provides legal representation to poor children. "But schools cannot possibly meet the need if all of their students are poor."

Education is often touted as an avenue to escape poverty. But in the United States, poor children are far more likely to be chronically absent from school than kids from more fortunate families. A study by Johns Hopkins University, for example, found that half of all chronically absent students in Florida came from 12 percent of the state's districts, which were located in low-income communities. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year. More than one in 10 American students are chronically absent.

Absenteeism matters. It is more strongly associated with dropping out than low test scores. The reasons that children from low-income families miss more school are varied. Their families may not have the ability to advocate for proper services for students with learning or physical disabilities. They may live in poor quality housing that puts them at risk of lead or mold exposure and causes illness. Logistical challenges, like the lack of a clean uniform or a winter coat, often play a role.

Meyer said that she is increasingly seeing children miss school because they need to interpret for their parents at medical or other appointments. "I have a client who is a seventh grade boy. He's a great kid, who loves being in school. But he frequently misses school to translate for his mother and his three younger siblings at medical appointments." Meyer advised the mother that she needed to send the boy to school — even though his family needed him at the doctor's office as well. "She was in a terrible position," Meyer said. "There were no good choices available to her."

Transportation is also frequently an issue for her clients, as financially strapped urban districts provide less bus service and snow-clogged streets are difficult for parents to navigate with younger children in strollers or with an unreliable car.

"What are just inconveniences to us are often insurmountable barriers to our clients," Meyer said. "They have a whole web of problems keeping them out of school that are difficult to resolve, embarrassing to families and embarrassing to kids."

Yes, these problems are difficult to resolve taken one by one. But it strikes me that many could be avoided all together if there were a baseline of support offered to low income families. Public assistance has never kept pace with inflation. And the minimum wage in most states is notoriously inadequate to support a single person, let alone a family.

The average school district spends more than $12,000 a year to educate a student. So every time a child must repeat a grade, that's $12,000 of taxpayer expense. The cost of dropping out is even higher, in lost economic contribution and increased need for public assistance. A 2011 study estimated that the lost lifetime income of dropouts from that year's high school classes was $154 billion.

We need to create a society where everyone can afford a bottle of detergent, if for no better reason than that the alternative is insupportably expensive.