To Help Our Schools, Let's End Poverty

07/27/2010 12:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Left, or right, one thing that every politician -- at least rhetorically -- can agree upon is that we should improve our schools. America used to have the best primary school system in the world; unfortunately, this is no longer the case. While both sides of the aisle can agree that we should strive to re-capture our status as number one in the world, there is broad disagreement over how to accomplish this large and incredibly important task.

Much of the debate has focused on issues such as charter schools, school vouchers, teacher performance pay, and standardized tests, but I feel that missing from the debate is the central issue that divides good schools from bad. There are schools in this state where students are not only expected to go to college, but also are expected to graduate from high school with extra-curricular activities and numerous AP credits, and there are schools in this state where students aren't even expected to graduate. Why do we have such disparities? Why do we have so many schools and school systems failing to live up to the promise of free, equitable schooling for the good of our nation? At the crux of it, the answer is money (and I'm not talking about in the schools, but, rather, in the homes).

This is not to suggest that I am against charter schools. In fact, I believe they can play pivotal roles in improving our public school system by serving as incubators for innovation in the classroom. However, they are not an answer in and of themselves. Simply turning public schools into private schools, may benefit certain entrepreneurs, but, unfortunately, will not solve our nation's education woes. Similarly I think that improving testing standards (particularly to include survey data on things such as student happiness and motivation) can have positive impacts on education and that teacher performance pay is an idea, at least, worth exploring. However, one key variable (that every education study for the past 40 years has demonstrated to be highly correlated to student achievement) is missing from this equation: household income.

Should we continue to fiddle at the edges of reform? Absolutely, improving education is never finished. But, we, as a nation, need to recognize and address the role poverty has on student performance. If a student's development is stunted by a lack of nutritional health because the parent(s) can't afford healthy food, this has a negative impact in the classroom. If a parent has to decide between keeping the lights on and going to the doctors office, the stress of this decision will have a negative impact on school performance. If a lack of money causes a mom to leave a child with his alcoholic uncle instead of enrolling him in a pre-school with a positive learning environment, this will have a negative impact on student achievement. If a child has to traverse dangerous streets to go to the library in order to access the internet, instead of going to her bedroom -- this will have a negative impact on education outcomes. I could go on, but I think the point is clear: poverty hurts educational development. If we want to see America regain its status as having the best classrooms in the world, we need to focus on reducing poverty.

Before I lay out my vision for addressing poverty, let me add why it is important that our education system improves. This may seem obvious, but beyond education being an end in and of itself, an investment in education is an investment in our nation's future. This is particularly true as our nation has moved away from a natural resource dependent (i.e., manufacturing) economy and toward a human capital (i.e., service industry) economy. If we have a more educated workforce, we will have a stronger economy.

So, what is the best way to address poverty (thus, ensuring a more educated populace and stronger economy)? In my estimation, there are two main ways. One is to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. This makes each paycheck more valuable by adding additional value through an annual tax refund. To expand it, we can increase the means test and raise the credit limit. Second, we can invest in holistic community development programs that aim to increase the health of entire communities. President Obama deserves plaudits for beginning down this road with his Promise Neighborhoods initiative; however, a few million dollars is not nearly enough to uplift every impoverished community in America. If we are to truly address poverty, we need to be willing to take bold steps. Thirdly, I would like to add that there are myriad other ways to address poverty and I would encourage input on the subject from experts and interested parties from all sides of the political spectrum, but that first we -- as a society -- have to agree that, to address our faltering education system, we need to invest in poverty alleviation.

I feel obligated to point out that following my recommendations (particularly regarding increasing and expanding the EITC) would likely result in significant positive effects for our economy. Getting more money into the hands of our most needy citizens has a multiplying effect. Because poor people spend higher percentages of their incomes, such a policy initiative would have a stimulatory effect on economic growth.

There will be those that say such a task is too big and too impractical. Others may say that only a naive idealist would suggest such an outlandish step to improve our school system. They may suggest that if we just abolished teachers unions, or we just ended standardized testing, or we just made this small tweak here, or that one there, that everything would come together, our school systems would improve, and all would be right in the world of education. Personally, I think short-sighted approaches to education reform show true naivety. I care too much about this country's economic health, and too much about equal opportunity, to watch another generation of kids raised without the opportunity to gain a quality education. My personal philosophy of governance is that every child, no matter the circumstances they are born into, should have as close to an equal opportunity in life to succeed as possible. To turn this vision into reality, let's end poverty.

Andrew Gall
Democratic Candidate for Congress (MD-05)