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How Many of Our Students Live in Poverty?

The number we often hear for the proportion of our students who live in poverty is in the range of 20% to 23%. But Susan Ohanian has flagged some frightening data from the Department of Education's Data Express. The number of students receiving free or reduced price lunches has grown significantly, and in 2008-2009 44% of our nation's students were eligible. In the state of California, 52% are eligible. In Mississippi, 68% are eligible, and the prize for the lowest proportion goes to New Hampshire, with 20% eligible. In the city of Oakland, where I have worked for the past 24 years, more than 68% of the students were eligible.

What does this mean in terms of income? Each state sets an income level that makes one eligible. In California, a family of four with an annual gross income of less than $28,665 qualifies for a free lunch, while reduced price lunches are available for students with a family income less than $40,793.

Is this a reflection of true poverty?
Think about your own family's income. I know my California household would have a very hard time getting along on this amount, and there would be no margin of safety if someone lost a job or had hours cut back. We are seeing elements of our societal safety net eroded every week. Several million Americans are about to lose unemployment benefits after having lost their jobs in the recession, and we are being told these jobs may not return. Many of these millions are parents. How are their children going to be affected by seeing their parents financially ruined?

College degrees do not offer much protection from the insecurity that has become the norm, especially for those just out of college. Andrew Sum reports


Young college educated workers, particularly those 25 and under, however, have not fared very well over the past three years. They have experienced rising joblessness, underemployment, and malemployment problems (i.e. working in jobs that do not require a college degree). During the January-August period of 2010, we estimate that fewer than 50 of every 100 young B.A.-holders held a job requiring a college degree.

In films like Waiting for Superman, student achievement in the US is compared unfavorably to outcomes in countries such as Finland. However, Finland has less than 5% of its children being raised in poverty. And the country has a strong social safety net, so that children are not in danger of eviction and deprivation.

As Stephen Krashen has pointed out, poverty is closely correlated to school achievement. Those of us who have worked in these schools know firsthand why this is so. Poverty is associated with poor health, poor nutrition, lousy day-care and pre-schools, dangerous and violent neighborhoods, family instability and even violence, poor access to dental and vision care, and so on.

Our education secretary styles himself a civil rights leader.
But Arne Duncan last week gave a speech that called on us to accept that the "new normal" in education will be budget cuts and "doing more with less." This speech before the American Enterprise Institute, was lauded by National Review columnists Frederick Hess and Michael Petrilli, who wrote:


In one speech, this (Democratic) secretary of education came out swinging against "last hired, first fired," seniority-based pay raises, smaller class sizes, seat time, pay bonuses for master's degrees, and bloated special-education budgets. Which means he just declared war on the teachers' unions, parents' groups, education schools, and the special-education lobby. Not bad for a day's work.

When the unions start busing in kids, parents, and teachers to rally against increases in class size or pay freezes, expect a lot of Republican governors to start quoting their good friend Arne Duncan.

Our schools ought to be places of refuge for children in poverty. Often the free or reduced price lunch is their only solid meal of the day. Smaller class sizes allow teachers the chance to give more attention to individual students, who need it all the more when their families are financially stressed. Sadly, Secretary Duncan appears to be doing his best to clear the way for cuts to the schools and attacks on teachers and students. It looks like we are going to need to start handling this ourselves. The group I started just over a year ago, Teachers' Letters to Obama, has decided to join others in organizing a non-partisan conference and march in Washington, DC, next July 28 to 31.

What do you think? How many of your students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches? Does this equate with poverty? Are you ready to get active yourself around these issues?

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