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Op-Ed: Why we must care that half of public school students are poor

While 2014 seemed to be the year that finally threw off the final chains of the Great Recession, with the U.S. seeing the greatest number of jobs added since boom-tastic 1999, critics are worried that optimists are ignoring the rampant increase in income inequality. While jobs are coming back, wages are eroded from their pre-Recession levels. People who lost their jobs in 2008 and 2009 are finally finding employment again…but for a fraction of the pay.

A shocking indicator of the erosion of U.S. real wages is the fact that now over half of all public school students are eligible for federal free- and reduced-price-lunch programs. According to The Washington Post, the Southern Education Foundation has found that 51 percent of all pre-K through 12th grade public school students meet this federal poverty guideline. Michael A. Rebell of Columbia University said that, while they knew this statistic would occur eventually due to current trends, they did not expect it to occur so soon.

And this statistic is a big problem. We must take notice, and so must policymakers and the economists in their employ. Our public schools are in trouble, and it matters.

First of all, the increasing impoverishment of our public school students indicated a decrease in advocacy for public schools. Public schools are losing power and voice as the families who attend them lose resources. Parents whose children attend public schools are losing the resources with which to support those schools, support their children’s education, and advocate for better conditions. With less ability to advocate, parents and public schools are increasingly at the mercy of policymakers who may know little or nothing about education and pedagogy.

Secondly, the statistic implies that “capital flight” from our nation’s public schools is continuing. While increasing income inequality is a big factor, we must study to what extent, and why, wealthy parents are pulling their children out of public school and how to reverse this trend. The exit of wealthy parents from public schools means that fewer students clubs and extracurricular activities can be funded, staffed with volunteers, or publicized in local media. Community support for public schools will dry up as parents with means no longer advocate for them.

As wealthy parents leave public schools and the schools lose their voice, the government is less likely to pay attention to the needs of public schools. Parents are lobbyists for the education received by their children, and public schools cannot afford to lose their lobbyists. As the balance of power tips in favor of private schools and charter schools, public schools will suffer further. Wealthy parents who have fled from public schools to private schools will demand the ability to divert their funds solely into those private schools, depriving public schools of funding. The government will listen to the rich and well-connected, who will now be arguing for increased privatization of K-12 education.

Third, increased poverty in K-12 public education means a heavy-handed increase in federal oversight. Perhaps ignorant of powerful economic determinants of academic performance, policymakers will ignore the erosion of real wages and lay the blame of poor academic performance entirely on the schools themselves, justifying proposals to further restrict teacher autonomy and academic freedom. “Test scores keep dropping, and it must be your fault! We need to crack down on you!” will be the government sneer to public school teachers and administrators.

Mistaking the effects of poverty for the effects of poor teaching, teachers will become subject to increasingly oppressive government regulation and oversight, eventually causing “capital flight” in terms of educator human capital. Teachers will begin leaving en masse, further eroding public school performance. The “best and brightest” teachers will jump ship, following the wealthy parents who have already departed.

To fix our public schools, we must work on fixing our economy. We must stop funding charter schools. We must stop using school vouchers. To fix public schools, we must go all in. We cannot hope to solve the problem by giving parents easy outs. We’re all in this together.

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