No Child Left in Isolation

Side profile of students standing in line for a school bus
Side profile of students standing in line for a school bus

Just about any discussion about No Child Left Behind is a contentious one. Discussions about the viability of the program will likely happen in Congress this year. It is reasonable to hypothesize that the issue of how money is spent will be central to any discussion.

Unfortunately any congressional discussions over Title I spending and its impact on the academic gains of economically disadvantaged students will be more of the same because that's the status quo; discussions about patch work solutions instead of attacking the root of the problem. That is because Congress, much like our nation, is not ready or willing to have a discussion on what it will really take to close achievement gaps.

Title I funding is the money allocated to low-income school districts in their attempts to close academic achievement gaps between whites and the economically disadvantaged non-white. Many on the right side of the political aisle favor of portable Title I funds. That is funding children instead of schools; wealthier school districts would be in line to receive Title I funding if they had economically disadvantaged students on the rolls. Those left-leaning legislators are naturally opposed to portable funds, citing that money will be taken from poorer school districts, who need it, to be given to wealthier districts, who don't need it as much. The fear is tipping the scales even more against low-income students. It's safe to think that people don't want to see poor students of color put at an even further disadvantage academically, but who can argue that the current way we do things is working effectively? The system as is currently constructed is a well-oiled machine when it comes to producing what we already have. But who wants more of that?

Yet, we're unsure if portability would really impact those students in high poverty schools; students who attend schools where a majority of their classmates are also poor. But does giving high poverty districts more money change the fact that the majority of these student are poor? Does it change the neighborhoods that these students live in or the experiences that they have in those neighborhoods as a result of their socioeconomic isolation? If you want to close achievement gaps between poor students of color and their wealthier white counterparts, you must reduce the high levels of socioeconomic isolation in urban communities. One way to do that is not necessarily throwing more money into school districts that serve this category of students, or simply moving students to wealthier districts and sending Title I funds with them. What it will really take is to actually reduce, if not eradicate, poverty in poverty centers, specifically areas with high concentrations of poverty.

And so the million dollar question is how to rid poverty where there is poverty? If I had the answer, maybe I'd be a politician. But when it comes to this matter of socioeconomic isolation's impact on the educational outcomes of children of color, people tend to fall into one of two camps. One is either a culturalist, emphasizing the importance of self-perpetuating norms and behaviors, or a structuralist, emphasizing the role of white privilege and institutional racism's impact on economic circumstance. Regardless of what side of the ledger you fall on, it is irrefutable that your philosophical view shapes any solution you may bring to the table. If you lean hard on the culturalist side of the ledger, you may believe in the "culture" of poverty, you may think institutions, like society, are colorblind and that any man, woman or child can succeed if they simply work hard and carry themselves according to the Protestant ethic.

If you lean hard on the structuralist side of the ledger, you may believe that white supremacy shapes most, if not all, of the institutions and experiences within our nation's borders, and that there is an eternal struggle between the excellence of people of color and white mediocrity -- more victories being held by the latter. If you fall hard on either side, and you take those hard stances into the urban classroom or in the meeting rooms when discussing education policy, be assured that no one will ever accuse you of ending poverty. With that frame of thinking, it is impossible. Hard stances like that set people of color up for failure.

What is needed in any educational discussion regarding poor children of color is a philosophical balance which accounts for the truths offered by both perspectives. Unfortunately, such discussions are often led by those with a culturalist point of view. But here is a news flash for white lawmakers; people of color, particularly those among the poor, tend to have strong work ethics, they tend to not make excuses and they believe in accountability for themselves and their children. These are lessons shared in black and Latino households daily. Maybe white lawmakers should consider things beyond the control of blacks and Latinos in high poverty areas; the fact that federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, amounting to $15,080 per year. According to the 2014 guidelines, the poverty line for a family of three is $19,790 per year.

Or, the fact that women only get paid 78 cents to every dollar a man makes (64 cents for Black women and 56 cents for Latinas); there are a lot of female led single-family households in high poverty areas. Or, maybe, the fact that average cost of childcare for an infant in the United States is a little more than $800 per month. These things are not issues of culture, but rather they are institutional and structural hindrances for many residents of high poverty areas.

For the Conservatives, portability is about injecting market forces and choice in public education. Maybe they and others should consider facilitating market changes to inject economic sustainability in the lives of low income public education parents. Maybe then, we could honestly say that no child is being left behind.