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Ed in the Apple: Can President Biden Reduce Childhood Poverty?

Last summer the presidential campaign was in full swing and while were sheltering in place; candidate Biden released his education policy platform,

As president, Joe Biden will provide educators the support and respect they need and deserve and invest in all children from birth, so that regardless of their zip code, parents’ income, race, or disability, they are prepared to succeed in tomorrow’s economy. He will:

  • Support our educators by giving them the pay and dignity they deserve.
  • Invest in resources for our schools so students grow into physically and emotionally healthy adults and educators can focus on teaching.
  • Ensure that no child’s future is determined by their zip code, parents’ income, race, or disability.
  • Provide every middle and high school student a path to a successful career.
  • Start investing in our children at birth.

While lacking specifics the policy statements encompassed what most of us believe in.

On his first day in office January 21,st President Biden signed an Executive Order (Executive Order on Supporting the  Re-opening and Continuing Operation of Schools and Early Childhood Education Providers, Read here).

First, the health and safety of children, students, educators, families, and communities is paramount.  Second, every student in the United States should have the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, during and beyond the pandemic.

… help create the conditions for safe, in-person learning as quickly as possible; mitigate learning loss caused by the pandemic; and address educational disparities and inequities that the pandemic has created and exacerbated.  

… provide, evidence-based guidance to assist States and elementary and secondary schools in deciding whether and how to reopen, and how to remain open, for in-person learning; and in safely conducting in-person learning, including by implementing mitigation measures such as cleaning, masking, proper ventilation, and testing; 

… provide advice to … local education agencies, and elementary and secondary schools regarding distance and online learning, blended learning, and in-person learning; and the promotion of mental health, social-emotional well-being, and communication with parents and families;

Once again, we all probably agree, these are vital and welcome steps.

On the January 26th President Biden issued an Executive Order dealing with Racial Equity,

 I believe this nation and this government need to change their whole approach to the issue of racial equal equity. Yes, we need criminal justice reform, but that isn’t nearly enough.  We need to open the promise of America to every American.  And that means we need to make the issue of racial equity not just an issue for any one department of government; it has to be the business of the whole of government. 

The educational twitter-sphere are asking whether he can actually open schools in 100 days, whether Biden/Cardona will cancel standardized tests, or, perhaps ending standardized testing permanently.  Since Betsy deVos granted waivers to states to postpone standardized tests, for this year I’m sure the Secretary of Education nominee, after conformation, will also grant waivers.

As I look over the education landscape, what is the one thing, the one policy that will have the most impact: reducing childhood poverty.

We began in the 1960’s with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, unfortunately under Nixon and his successors we lost our way. No Children Left Behind, a bi-partisan bill, moved us backwards, and sadly Obama’s Race to the Top turned schools into “test and punish” institutions.

The Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) collects a wealth of data about the forty plus most industrialized nations; one of the data points is childhood poverty

Finland has the lowest rate of childhood poverty among the industrialized nations: 3%, and, the United States near the top of the list: 23%.

In addition virtually no childhood poverty Finland has income equality, not the extremely wide ranges that we have.

Teachers are drawn from the top 10% of graduating classes, we draw from the lower half: lower salary and low prestige discourages students from selecting teaching as a profession, and, those do decide to teach commonly leave after a few years. In high poverty middle schools 40% of teachers leave with their first five years.

Yes, Finland has no standardized tests; it does have a rigorous, high stakes matriculation exam at the end of high school that determines post secondary opportunities.

See a detailed description of the Finland education system here

Finland: Instructional Systems

I think we can all agree, Finland has a wonderful education, if we want to replicate we have to begin with reducing childhood poverty.

Paul Krugman, the NY Times Nobel Prize winning columnist opines in his latest, “Helping Kids is a Very Good Idea,”

 Shouldn’t politicians who claim to be terribly worried about the future of America’s children support, you know, actually helping America’s children today?

That’s not a hypothetical question. Democrats are reportedly working on legislation that would offer monthly payments to most American families with children, and could, among other things, cut child poverty roughly in half.

Two years ago Andrew Yang was touting a Universal Basic Income (See NY Time discussion here), what appeared illusory might be hovering on the horizon, Democrats in the House are working on drafts of a bill, see details here, and, the NY Times reports are willing to push ahead with or without Republican support.

There are other core issues, reforming school funding at the state level, in New York State property tax rules, the wealthiest district receives the highest funding, by far.

COVID transmission rates, vaccinations dominate the media, if the rates fall, if vaccination rates increase, maybe school openings will take place prior to the end of the school year. If we simply return to pre-COVID schools we have to confront students who have been out of classrooms for over a school year.  The White-Students of Color gap will grow, we will be scrambling to make up for lost time, a Sisyphean task.

Reducing childhood poverty would be a giant step.

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Peter Goodman

Peter Goodman is a career NYC high school teacher, education consultant, and district representative for the United Federation of Teachers. ...