Your Take: Bill a Threat to Poor Students

A below-the-radar measure would allow billions aimed at educating poor kids to be diverted.

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House Education Committee Chairman John Kline has hinted, for example, that some district officials would rather use funds intended for English-language learners to instead “upgrade computers.” The great anti-poverty and civil rights legislation would become one huge block grant subject to the political whims of state and local leaders.

By threatening the funding and programs for disadvantaged students, the bill not only jeopardizes Congress’ bipartisan legacy of leadership in education policy but also ignores at least two basic realities.

First, decades of research (pdf) demonstrate that children living in poverty face obstacles to learning that must be addressed in order to level the playing field (pdf). And second, what states and school districts need most in times of fiscal crisis and faltering academic achievement is not “flexibility” in how to use limited money but greater investments and support overall.

This bill will not help school districts or students. Worse yet, the bill ignores the high rate of return on investments made in providing a quality education to poor students. Despite these realities, the bill received unanimous support from House Republicans while receiving universal condemnation from the civil rights community. Once again, political ideology reigned over common sense.

Unfortunately, today’s congressional leaders are not the only policymakers prioritizing politics over the needs of students. In New Jersey, where the state Supreme Court has long affirmed the need for students in poor districts to receive additional funds (pdf), Gov. Chris Christie recently slashed funding for such districts, resulting in an arduous court battle.

Meanwhile, advocates in Pennsylvania saw their efforts to cement a new funding plan, intended to bring more money to poor schools, decimated when Gov. Tom Corbett cut the state’s education budget. Another legal showdown emerged in North Carolina, where the Republican-led General Assembly attempted to limit funding for low-income students to attend state-sponsored preschool.

These examples represent a troubling tendency of some policymakers to ignore the needs of our most disadvantaged students when political expediency permits. Tough economic times have allowed them to hide behind the guise of shared sacrifice. But while budget cuts can negatively affect all students, they are particularly harmful to students already trailing behind wealthier kids.

Cutting free state-sponsored pre-K has a very different effect in a community with few preschool options versus a suburban area where parents compete for private school placements. Policymakers may argue that all students must bear the weight of the recession, but they cannot deny that these decisions may widen the achievement gap between low-income (often black and Latino) and wealthier kids.

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