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The Story That Made Me Tear Up My Prepared Speech at a Big Education Conference

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I was scheduled to give a speech at the Get Schooled conference on education reform yesterday, sponsored by the Gates Foundation and Viacom. My speech had been perfectly trimmed to fit the allotted time, and already loaded in the teleprompter.

Then I read Erik Eckholm's moving story in the New York Times on the surge of homeless schoolchildren caused by the epidemic of home foreclosures. The story was accompanied by a photo that haunted me.

It showed 9-year-old Charity Crowell, of Asheville, North Carolina whose family's home had been foreclosed on. As recounted by Eckholm, Charity had picked out the green and purple outfit she would wear on the first day of school, while vowing to bring her grades back up from the Cs she got last spring when her parents lost their jobs and car and the family was evicted and forced to move into a series of friends' houses and then a motel -- and now a trailer, from which they are also facing eviction.

I've already been thinking a lot about the human cost of the millions of foreclosures taking place across America. But after I read this article, I dug deeper into the impact of foreclosures on schoolchildren. And I wanted to communicate the sense of urgency I felt to the thousand people gathered at the conference, including Bill and Melinda Gates, Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller, New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein, and Stephen Colbert, who emceed the event. So I decided to scrap my planned speech and talk about the crisis.

We don't have the current numbers of homeless school children. The latest national data we have is from last spring, when there were over one million schoolchildren who were homeless. But since last spring, two million more jobs have been lost, and home foreclosures have continued to rise at an epidemic pace. How many of the million homes that have received foreclosure filings in the last six months included school age children?

We have anecdotal evidence from school districts like San Antonio, which has enrolled 1,000 homeless students in the first two weeks of school -- double the amount as at the same point last year.

We live in a country that, one year ago this month, came together with a sense of national emergency, and bailed out banks that were "too big to fail."

Shouldn't we also be living in a country that can come together right now and bail out schoolchildren that are too small to be allowed to fail before they have been allowed to succeed?

"I couldn't go to sleep," 9-year-old Charity said of her last semester. "I was worried about all the stuff." As a result, she often fell asleep in class.

Since 2001, federal law has required every school district to appoint a liaison to the homeless charged with identifying and helping families, including sending school buses to pick up the kids sleeping in run-down motels, or living in cars, homeless shelters, or on the streets.

But school superintendents report that while this is a worthy law, Congress has largely passed the costs on to states and cities already facing massive budget deficits.

And we know that every day more and more families with schoolchildren are losing their homes. And more and more school districts are trying to bridge the gap and meet the growing need.

Eckholm tells the story of Emily Walters, the Buncombe County school district's liaison to the homeless, who "is busy as school begins, providing backpacks and other supplies, and signing homeless children up for free breakfasts and lunches."

The evening before school began, Ms. Walters drove 45 minutes to an RV campground to deliver a scientific calculator and other essential school supplies to Cody Curry, 14, who lives with his mother, Dawn, and his brother, Zack, 11, in a camper. Mrs. Curry had to downsize from a trailer, she said, when her work as a sales clerk was cut to two days a week.

"We see 8-year-olds telling Mom not to worry, don't cry," Bill Murdock, who is also working with homeless school children, told Eckholm.

It's hard to hear stories like these and not be outraged that, as a country, we have given trillions of dollars to save banks like Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo that are now turning around and refusing to modify mortgages, so that at least people with children can stay in their homes.

It's important to remember that many of the people losing their homes now are not people with crazy sub-prime mortgages or who took out massive loans they couldn't afford. They are hard working, middle class Americans who have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet.

It's equally important to remember that these are the same banks that used bailout money -- our money -- to hire lobbyists to kill legislation in the Senate this spring that would have saved over a million-and-a-half people from losing their homes.

Even judges are getting angry. Judges like Arthur Schack of the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn who regularly refuses banks' petitions for foreclosure if every i is not dotted and every t is not crossed. "If you are going to take away someone's house," he told the New York Times, "everything should be legal and correct. I'm a strange guy -- I don't want to put a family on the street unless it's legitimate."

Home foreclosures are a gateway calamity, magnified exponentially when they affect America's children. Teaching our kids is tough enough under normal circumstances; it becomes nearly impossible when you add in the instability and inherent distress of homelessness.

So we need to take steps. And we need take them now. For starters, when there are children affected by the pending foreclosure, we need to revisit legislation allowing bankruptcy judges to modify the terms of home loans -- the horribly named cramdown provision. HuffPost's Ryan Grim reported today that Barney Frank plans to make cramdown part of the financial regulatory reform bill set to come before Congress this fall. We should make sure that the banking lobbyists aren't able to kill it again.

We should also require mandatory mediation between homeowners and lenders prior to any foreclosure. Currently, many lenders make it next to impossible for homeowners facing foreclosure to reach them. Pilot programs along these lines have succeeded in preventing or delaying foreclosures in the majority of cases. Then why don't we insist that mediation happens -- at least when there are schoolchildren involved?

In my original speech, I had planned to talk about the importance of teaching empathy to our children. The crisis of homeless students is an opportunity for all of us to teach it to our children by demonstrating it -- at the public policy level, as well as at the private charity level.

As a society, we cannot stand by and allow the banks we saved to bolster their bottom lines, then coldly and cavalierly write off our most vulnerable citizens, our children.

This is about much more than money. It's about our priorities as a nation. The conference focused on the need to rebuild our educational infrastructure. And that's incredibly important. But there is a fire blazing -- the rising homelessness among schoolchildren. And we desperately need to act before it turns into a conflagration.