Get Wonky: Education Reform, Part III

This is Part Three of an ongoing series about education reform. For Part One, click here; for Part Two, click here.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a great article today about schools in DeKalb County grappling with high poverty rates among its students. It’s a really thoughtful piece that highlights the difficulties that come from dealing with low-income children. “It’s a foreign problem for middle class schools,” writes the article’s author, Ty Tagami, who goes on to illustrate some specific examples of the unique challenges these schools face:

One family…lived in a hotel where there was a shooting. The victim fell into their apartment, bleeding on the carpet as their child watched. Another boy’s brother was murdered at a gas station and his mom sent him to the school the next day anyway.

Poverty has far-reaching affects for school-age students. For low-income children, a school lunch might be their only meal of the deal. It might be the only place they can receive medical care; Tagami writes that “the nurse…is the only medical professional many students ever see” because “many parents …because they earn a little too much to qualify for government insurance or because they failed to file some document. Some simply don’t have a car to get to a doctor’s office.” Still other problems are less intuitive, and would be completely alien to a more affluent school district, such as schools in Atlanta that had to get washing machines for their students so they’d have access to clean clothes.

The meat of this article, for Wonk purposes, comes in the form of education funding, which you’ll know from the previous articles in this series, is called the QBE formula. Tagami writes about the widely-held expectation that Governor Deal will update the formula in the next legislative session, but that experts are not convinced it will be sufficient:

Observers such as Claire Suggs, a policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a watchdog non-profit, questions the formula’s adequacy. It would apply to only about half the more than 60 percent of Georgia students who currently qualify for subsidized school breakfasts and lunches. And Suggs said the 10 percent in additional dollars per poor student in the formula wasn’t based on an analysis of the cost to provide services.

Tagami goes on to say that “There’s little information about what the price tag should be,” but quotes a Vanderbilt professor as saying that it “probably costs twice as much to adequately educate a child in poverty as a typical middle class kid–far more than the 10 percent extra that Deal’s Education Reform Commission recommended.”

As I pointed out in the previous entries in this series, trying to figure out exactly how much money is necessary for low-income students is difficult, although my proposal–to use additional funds to hire new social service workers to work directly with parents and students to find the areas of greatest need, and to have the freedom to act to address those specific needs. The AJC article mentions teachers working to get students MARTA passes, for example; that’s the kind of thing I was advocating here.

None of this is to say it would be easy, or cheap, or even politically viable. I use this article to point out only that children in poverty face very real, very serious challenges that stand in the way of a quality education, challenges that an “average” (whatever that means) student does not. Attempts to meet these challenges without awareness that they are unique to low-income children will fail.

Deal’s plan to update the school funding formula comes at a much-needed time. The coming months will tell if it is going to be sufficient to provide the most desperate children with the tools they need to receive a quality education.



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