07/17/2012 12:44 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2012

Can Poverty Completely Explain Poor School Outcomes?

The class action lawsuit the ACLU announced last week against both Michigan and a tiny Detroit area school district for failing to educate its own children raises this question: Can schools ever compensate for the ills of poverty?

As poor and minority students increasingly dominate classrooms, the debate about troubled schools becomes polarized around the poverty question. Many urban school teachers say they get blamed for children who arrive in school poorly prepared for learning. School reformers argue that some educators hide their shortcomings behind the cloak of poverty.

Who's right?

Highland Park would seem to be a poster child for the poverty argument. The life has been sucked out of this working class community once home to Chrysler, a city now so poor it had to remove 1,000 of its 1,500 street lights because it couldn't afford to pay the power bill.

Roughly half the mostly African American residents live below the poverty line, compared to less than 15 percent of Michigan residents. Seventy-five percent of the seventh-graders failed to reach proficiency levels on state reading tests.

Blaming poverty here is a powerful argument. But it doesn't tell the entire story.

In writing about former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, I had to determine whether Rhee's brash reforms were justified. Rhee's critics said poverty, not ineffective teaching, explained poor student outcomes. Therefore, her reforms were misguided. But federal data told a different story: Low-income, black students in Washington were as much as two years behind comparable students in some other cities.

Yes, poverty was a major player, but a failure to teach appeared to be an equally powerful player.

In a recent book describing school success stories found in high-poverty neighborhoods, I found many schools, and a few entire districts, that are head and shoulders above their counterparts. A short list of districts: Long Beach, CA., Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina.

In San Jose, CA., I found a small-but-growing group of elementary charter schools where low-income Hispanic students turn out test scores that rival the scores seen in middle-class schools in far wealthier neighborhoods in Santa Clara County.

All these school success stories have to be kept in perspective. Even the best of these schools can't replicate wealthy suburban schools. Poverty is not that easily erased.

What matters in places such as Washington and San Jose is that hundreds more students will arrive in their senior year of high school prepared to take on some kind of post-high school education. By contrast, the widespread illiteracy seen in Highland Park essentially dooms even those who make it was far as their senior year.

So yes, poverty makes a huge difference ... but not all the difference.

This post originally appeared in USA Today.

Richard Whitmire is author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation's Worst School District and co-author of The Achievable Dream: College Board Lessons on Creating Great Schools.