Public schools are supposed to be the place where every child gets a chance to succeed, but we all know that’s just the ideal. All children don’t come to school with the same tools and resources, and it’s unrealistic to expect a teacher in a full classroom to be able to make up for the differences without a lot of help.
Children from financially secure homes do better in school than children who are raised in poverty. It’s not because financially stressed parents don’t love and care for their children, or that poor children are less intelligent than their middle-class peers. It’s just a fact that what happens outside of school is as important as what happens in the classroom.
The federal government’s Title I program seeks to narrow that achievement gap, sending extra education funds to help economically disadvantaged students catch up. But the way the money has been used in Maine reinforces these disadvantages instead of reducing them.
When a Maine school district receives a dollar of Title I money, it loses a dollar of state subsidy. So instead of having more resources to address the effects of poverty, schools have to make do with the same level of support that goes to students who come to school already far ahead.
A bill to address this discrepancy has been filed by state Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, and is one of the few pieces of legislation that will be considered in the upcoming session. Lawmakers of both parties should find a way to fund it before another generation of children is left behind at school.
That type of change won’t be inexpensive. The state receives about $40 million a year in Title I funds, which it is now using to supplant the amount it raises for schools.
But while it reduces the tax burden, this policy puts a different kind of burden on low-income Mainers.
Gratwick’s bill should receive strong cross-partisan support because it addresses a problem that does not respect political fault lines.
More than 50,000 children – nearly one in five statewide – lives below the poverty line. One in three Maine children qualify for food supplement benefits.
The highest poverty rates are found in the rural “rim” counties farthest from the southern coast. Washington County has a 31.2 percent poverty rate, Piscataquis 29.6.
The state’s urban areas are also hit with deep poverty. Bangor has a 16.6 percent poverty rate, Lewiston 15.5 percent and Portland 14.1. The disadvantages poor children face in school are well-known.
Children who come to school hungry will be less likely to pay attention than their well-nourished peers. Children whose parents don’t speak English will have trouble following the give and take in the classroom. Children of poor families are sick more often and miss more school.
None of these factors involves the intelligence of these children, but any of them could cause students to fall so far behind they can never catch up.
The effect of poverty on student performance was well illustrated this year when the Maine Department of Education released its A-F grades for schools around the state, ranked by test scores and other factors.
While the grades offered little helpful information that would improve a school’s performance, they did produce a map that identified the areas of the state hardest hit by poverty.
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Of the high schools that received an F, an average of 61 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty. Of the high schools that received an A, the average was 9 percent. The correlation was not as strong but still clearly visible among elementary schools, with 67 percent of students in the F schools eligible for the program as compared to an average of just 25 percent in the A schools.
The Department of Education defends the way it uses the federal funds. Acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier said if the state did not subtract the Title I funds from a district’s state subsidy, Maine would pay twice for the same services. But students in poverty need more support than students who are better off. The point of Title I is closing that gap, not offsetting some of the state’s tax burden.
Perpetuating inequality in the schools affects us all. There has been considerable discussion about Maine’s aging workforce and a shortage of people with the skills needed to fill high-tech jobs. For economic reasons alone, it doesn’t make sense to squander the potential of a fifth of the future workforce by failing to invest in all the children who are in our schools now.
But it’s not just an economic issue. Children are not rich or poor by their own doing. We accept unequal incomes across our society, but we should not accept grossly unequal opportunity. Public schools really should be the place where every child has a chance to succeed.