Tag Archives: poverty

A Poor People’s Campaign for Education Reform? What We Can Learn from LBJ and MLK

On April 11, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sat in front of a one-room schoolhouse in Stonewall, Texas — the rural setting where he received his formative education — and signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). By his side was his former teacher, an elderly white woman bedecked in pearls and cat-eye glasses, and a group of Mexican-American former students he had taught in the Texas border town of Cotulla. This framing was no accident: the undercurrents of Civil Rights policy were in the air as Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the previous summer. And to further spotlight race equity in the ESEA, the date was selected to fall nearly 100 years to the day that the Civil War concluded.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on April 11, 1965. Photo by Frank Wolfe / LBJ Library

Johnson was staunch about his commitment to education. In a March 1965 conversation with newly inaugurated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Johnson said: “Don’t ever argue with me. I’ll go a hundred million or a billion on health or education….Education and health. I’ll spend the goddamned money.” With ESEA’s role in providing significantly expanded resources (like library books, special education centers, and college scholarships) to vulnerable students, Johnson served as a human bridge between underserved populations: rural students, minorities, and immigrants. Looking at Johnson’s cleverly staged ESEA photo makes me think there are again opportunities for underserved student interests to unite in their demand for access to educational and economic equality. Identifying the intersection of class interests — as LBJ did — might have powerful political ramifications for the U.S. school system. 

A few years after the signing of the ESEA, Martin Luther King, Jr. carried the racial and economic unity torch forward. In 1968 he initiated the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought economic justice for the American poor. The first march of the Campaign included an interracial group of protestors — and would be King’s last. At his famous speech directed at striking Memphis sanitation workers, he urged:

We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves.

But what if the photo opp Johnson arranged in Stonewall or the Poor People’s movement King envisioned stepped off the pages of history? What would a united populist movement for education and economic equality look like? How would it affect the classrooms our children fill each morning and the neighborhoods they return to each afternoon? As schools begin de facto resegregating, how might a united front across all underrepresented classes and underfunded schools provide a more equal education for all? Continue reading

Child Protection, Education Reform, and Our National Failure to Support Families in Poverty

If you only read one thing this week (besides, um, this blog post) please, please, please make it Jill LePore’s New Yorker article on the history and failures of child protection policies in the United States. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it’s depressing (the story opens with the discovery of a dead little girl’s body). But it tells an important story than anyone concerned about the wellbeing and futures of at-risk children in America–including those of us working to improve education– needs to pay attention to.

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Rural Education is for Everyone

Rural education wasn’t on my radar until I started to manage the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (ROCI), a joint initiative between Bellwether, Paul Hill, and the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. Like many others working in education policy and reform, my attention had been focused on urban America.

Over the past two and a half years, ROCI has released 19 reports on various issues related to rural education—from economic development to talent pipelines to funding formulas. Here’s some of what I have learned about why rural education is important to our field and our future:

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No, WaPo, Half of U.S. Kids Aren’t Living in Poverty (But the Truth is Still Pretty Bad)

On Friday, the Washington Post carried a shocking story: “Majority of U.S. Public School Students are in Poverty.”

The problem: It’s not true. The Washington Post article is based on a Southern Education Foundation analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data on students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, which, as the article notes, is sometimes cited as a proxy for poverty. But it’s NOT the same thing as poverty. Federal policymakers, recognizing that many non-poor families could also benefit from assistance, intentionally set the eligibility for free- and reduced-price school meals above the poverty level. At 185 percent of poverty to be exact (the eligibility for free meals is 130 percent of poverty).

This is a huge difference: The poverty line for a family of three is $19,790. But 185 percent of poverty is $36,611 for a family of three. That’s hardly a generous amount on which to raise a family. But it’s much more than $19,790. So, looking at the percentage of children eligible for free and reduced price lunch captures both many more children than looking at the number of children in poverty, and children from families whose economic circumstances are significantly different from those of families living below the poverty line.

It’s unfortunate the Washington Post chose to run with such an inaccurate headline. In no small part, because the truth is bad enough! We know, from the Census Bureau, that one in five children under age 18 lives in poverty. It is utterly shameful that such high rates of child poverty exist in the world’s richest country. And I fear that this inaccurate coverage may actually prevent readers from grasping how bad things really are.

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