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The Year They Began Calling Poverty and Homelessness an 'Excuse'

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"We don't use poverty as an excuse for low achievement." -- Springfield, Ill. School District 186 Superintendent Walter Milton, Jr.

2010 wasn't a very good year for public education -- or public anything, for that matter.

A so-far jobless economic recovery has seen a sharp rise in child poverty and with it, new barriers for schools, teachers and learners. It's a matter of fact that hungry and often homeless children aren't as successful in the classroom as those who are well fed, clad and housed.

The past year has seen a drying up of stimulus funds along with further erosion and selling off and privatization of public space, more public school closings and consolidations. Schools and classrooms are growing in size. Massive tuition increases at both private and public colleges and universities render a college education less accessible to working class families, cutting off one of the few remaining pathways to class mobility.

To make matters worse, the past year was marked by a sharp political swing to the right, with big victories for anti-tax Republicans in the mid-term elections. This swing was accompanied by new calls to stop "throwing money at" public education and for the poor to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Sadly, education leaders within the Obama administration are echoing many of these calls and bending to right-wing pressures.

It was just about a year ago for example, that Education Secretary Arne Duncan began his "no excuses" campaign, announcing in the press that he had "no patience for teachers and schools" that tick off all the reasons why their poor or minority students can't score as high on standardized tests.

Duncan has chosen to ignore poverty's downward effect on test scores and focus entirely on what he calls "bad teachers" and "failing schools." Recently confronted by educators teaching in some of the nation's highest-poverty areas about the need to do something about the living conditions of their students, Duncan cynically responded, "poverty is not destiny."

His "no excuses" mantra, essentially blaming poor students and their teachers for low test results, is now being echoed by many governors, urban mayors and school administrators like Springfield's Milton, all hoping their compliance will somehow be rewarded with federal dollars from Duncan to fill the holes in their shrinking school budgets.

Child poverty has been on the climb in Milton's district and surrounding counties in central Illinois. "It's a sign of the times the past decade in rural American and rural Illinois," said Les Huddle, superintendent of the Jacksonville School District.

In nearby Morgan County, the growing poverty rate and personal financial hardships create a "less-than-stable learning environment for students at home," said Huddle, noting that the Jacksonville district's enrollment dropped by more than 350 students as job losses drove many families away.

Duncan's "lack of patience" has also been taken as a call for tax breaks for the rich, coupled with deep and widespread cuts in social services, public housing, and other anti-poverty measures. The entire burden of his Race To The Top reform has been placed on teachers and their unions, and narrowly focused on schools and on the classroom. In some urban districts, teachers' names are now being posted in the media next to their students' test scores, as if individual teachers are solely responsible for those scores. Inadequate accountability measures, such as value-added, are being pushed as alternatives to collective-bargaining agreements to determine which teachers are to be fired and how much those remaining are to be paid.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that for the first time since the Education Department started counting, there are nearly a million homeless students in the United States. The Post reports that most drift with their families among motels, shelters and relatives' homes with a growing fraction living completely on their own, unparented, uninsured, ill-fed and surviving by their own devices.

Fairfax (VA) one of only two counties in the nation with median household incomes above $100,000, counts nearly 2,000 homeless students in its school division - about 200 of whom are..."unaccompanied." The latter figure is twice what the comparable figure was two years ago, a surge reflected nationally as the faltering economy has undermined many families. (WaPo)

With a surge in family poverty and a growing homeless student population, public school systems are under even more stress and are being turned into beggars. Schools have increasingly been forced to take on the role a welfare provider, both on and off campus, with few of the necessary resources, personnel, or skill sets.

The notion that rising unemployment, declining real wages, and a shocking increase in family poverty are mere "excuses," with little or no impact on student learning, is unworthy of our nation's top school leaders. It tells me that current school reform policies have little to do with sound social or educational research, but instead are ideologically or politically (in the worst sense) driven. In this political environment, Duncan's chants of "poverty is not destiny" sound downright pollyannish and even cruel in light of current conditions and his own policies.