With so much hype over the partisanship on Capitol Hill, it is easy to forget that there are efforts by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to help make life better for Americans.
Last Thursday, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., proposed the American Dream Accounts Act on the floor of the Senate. The bill has received bipartisan support, including co-sponsors Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and another version was introduced in the House on Monday by Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.).
In a press release, Coons said that “Too many students — especially students from low-income families — grow up unaware of the resources that are available to them to provide for higher education. Disengaged, they end up dropping out of high school and, putting their dreams in jeopardy.”
The bill helps to address the issue by mobilizing web resources to better integrate educational and financial services with educators, parents and students. Since it uses existing Department of Education funds, the bill will not require additional taxpayer dollars.
It is an innovative approach designed to help bridge the gap between education and income. In a 2010 Compendium Report, the National Center for Education Statistics noted that "in 2008, the event dropout rate of students living in low-income families was about four and one-half times greater than the rate of their peers from high-income families (8.7 percent vs. 2.0 percent)."
And the numbers are only partial—in some school districts, the dropout rate is much higher than the figures nationwide. In a 2011 article, the Los Angeles Times reported about half of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District dropped-out over a four-year period.
Such numbers point to the troubling inequalities still faced by disadvantaged families, but they do not begin to paint the full picture of the realities faced by teachers across the nation.
Suzanne Rescigna, who now teaches English at the Charter School of Wilmington, supports the bill. Resigna used to work with students from the barrios of Albuquerque, N.M., where she witnessed some of the realities firsthand. Her experiences guided her to believe it is unrealistic to put all the disadvantaged students in one school and expect success.
“You can put your finger on a zip code and know what the schooling is like for those kids,” Rescigna said. “This is wrong--if we are going to put the poor kids all together then we need to pour resources (and) excellent teachers into those schools.”
Rescigna said about a quarter of her students would attend school two or three months after the official reporting day because they would work as field-laborers. She also found it was a challenge to schedule parent-teacher conferences to help address the issue.
“Many students’ parents worked double jobs,” Rescigna said. “So conferencing with them was almost impossible—also, we often had to find translators when calling home (and) the students moved often—resulting in gaps in their skill levels.”
While teaching in Albuquerque, Rescigna and her colleagues also found themselves doubling the role of social workers. “Poor students come to school with many problems besides poverty,” she said. “Often the family is dysfunctional; many are involved with the prison system, violence (and) poor health. College is an abstract concept and they cannot pay for it.”
In his floor speech last Thursday, Coons echoed those sentiments noting “young people who come from a community, a family, a school where there is little to no experience of college education get powerful and negative messages from an early age that college is not for them. That it’s not affordable, that it’s not accessible, that it’s not part of the plan for their future.”
Mallory Johnston, a sophomore studying at the University of Delaware, supports the bill because it would use social networking to help improve college accessibility for underprivileged students.
“Many times motivation is key when applying to college,” Johnston said. “I know that for me, because I had the funds and the grades, college was an easy decision.”
“For students without the funding and lack of support, the decision might be more difficult for even seen as not an option.”
Time and again, studies have shown that education can help close the employment gap and end the cycle of economic disadvantage. For February 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 12.9 % unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma, 8.3% with a high school diploma and 4.2% with a bachelor’s degree or higher. The numbers show higher education is correlated with brighter job prospects.
“Our society requires a higher skill level to succeed,” Rescigna said. “It does not have to be college; some students need technical training. But a high school diploma does nothing for employment.”