A two-generation strategy to reduce poverty and increase school success

Added August 21st, 2015 by Pat Sorenson | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Pat Sorenson

The message was loud and clear at the State Board of Education meeting last week: family income and school success are inextricably linked, and Michigan’s school reform efforts will not succeed if the state doesn’t address that reality.

League President and CEO Gilda Z. Jacobs was invited by the State Board and new Superintendent Brian Whiston to address what it would take to make Michigan a top ten state for education. The Board is seeking input from education and business groups, advocacy organizations, teachers and parents—with the goal of developing a much-needed plan for action.

As the recent Kids Count Data Book revealed, child poverty is increasing in Michigan despite overall economic recovery, with 28% of all young children living in poverty, and rates much higher for children of color. The sad reality is that public policy decisions have made the problem worse, including reductions in the state Earned Income Tax Credit and punitive school truancy policies.

The impact of childhood poverty on education and the economy is clear:

  • The number of school children eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches continues to be the most reliable predictor of standardized test scores, and little has changed despite years of reform efforts.
  • Children in low-income families are more than twice as likely to repeat a grade, a strong predictor of school dropout. One of four adults who spend more than three years in poverty fails to receive a high school diploma.
  • Only one-quarter of women who spend half of their childhood in poverty are consistently employed as adults.

The League supports a two-generation solution to poverty and education that ensures that all children are ready for school and can succeed once they enter the school house doors, and simultaneously helps parents get the education and training they need to increase family income.

Our top three priorities include:

1. Reduce disparities based on income, race and place by targeting resources to high poverty districts and communities of color, beginning with full funding of the At-Risk program. The At-Risk program allocates funds to school districts based on the number of low-income children. With the governor’s leadership there will be a much-needed increase in the 2016 budget year—the first in more than a decade—but the program is not fully funded and needs to be.

2. Invest in early care and education with a stronger focus on child care and services for families with infants and toddlers. With the governor and Legislature’s leadership, Michigan has made great strides in enrolling low-income 4-year-olds in high quality preschool programs. Yet to be addressed are the woefully inadequate investments in children from birth through age 3—the time of greatest brain growth and learning. Among the early priorities are increased access to proven home-visiting programs and state funds for infants and toddlers who have been identified by the Early On program as having developmental delays.

From a two-generation perspective, greater investments in child care are especially critical. Without subsidies, high quality child care is unaffordable for most low-wage parents, and children placed in unsafe or low quality care can miss a critical window for early learning, with lifelong repercussions. Unfortunately, Michigan has some of the lowest eligibility and payment rates in the country, and the number of families helped by Michigan’s child care subsidy has plummeted.

3. Strengthen adult education and training. Adult education is a transition into the postsecondary education or training needed to create a competitive workforce in Michigan. Over 222,000 Michigan adults lack a high school diploma or GED, but fewer than 7% are enrolled in adult education and funding for adult education has dropped an astonishing 90% since 1996.

While alleviating poverty cannot be the primary focus of public schools, we also cannot continue to proceed with reform efforts with our heads in the sand, denying the indisputable impact of income, race and place on school success. We applaud the initiative taken by the Superintendent and the State Board and appreciate the opportunity to be involved. We hope their work will lead to policies and investments that can help move the dial on education.

— Pat Sorenson

 

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