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Janresseger: The Plight of the Poorest Students in America’s Public Schools Is Hidden in Plain Sight

For decades research has documented the correlation of family poverty and children’s school achievement.  And at the same time, data also show that America’s neighborhoods (and therefore its school districts) have become more segregated by income. Demonstrating these trends a decade ago, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods.  By 2007, fewer families lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Homelessness Among New York City Public School Students

Because our deepest experiences are in our own neighborhoods, many who are more fortunate may not easily see the problems faced by our society’s poorest children and may not grasp the significance of these challenges.  A report released last week from New York City’s Advocates for Children is a wake up call.  Here is the stunning headline: New Data Show 1 in 9 New York City Students Experienced Homelessness Last Year: “Data released today by Advocates for Children of New York show that 119,320 New York City students—roughly one in nine—experienced homelessness during the 2022-2023 school year. While the recent increase in the number of immigrant families arriving in New York City has brought greater public attention to the issue, student homelessness is not a new phenomenon. 2022-23 marked the eighth consecutive year in which more than 100,000 students were identified as homeless.

Some of these students were temporarily homeless; others lived in families lacking a permanent home for the entire school year: “(O)f  the more than 119,000 students in temporary housing last year, 40,840 (34%) spent time living in City shelters; more than 72,500 (61%) were ‘doubled up,’ or temporarily sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing or economic hardship, and about 5,900 were living in hotels or motels, unsheltered, or otherwise lacking a regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

Student homelessness is the most extreme example of how poverty can affect student achievement, but exploring the challenges student homelessness poses for students and their school district helps clarify the need for additional public funding and support. Advocates for Children explains: “Students who are homeless, and especially those living in shelter, face tremendous obstacles to success in school… (I)n 2021-22 (the most recent year for which data are available), students living in shelter dropped out of high school at more than three times the rate of their permanently housed peers, only 22% of those in grades 3-8 reached proficiency on the State English Language Arts exam, and 72% were chronically absent, meaning they missed at least one out of every ten school days.”

The school district has made extraordinary investments to address these children’s needs, but not surprisingly the investment remains inadequate: “Last year, to help resolve barriers to school attendance and improve educational outcomes for students experiencing homelessness, New York City Public Schools (NYCPS) hired 100 Community Coordinators to work on the ground in shelters. These Coordinators have helped students and families in shelter connect with needed educational services and supports including helping newly arrived immigrant students enroll in school. However, the Coordinators were hired using temporary funds that will run out in less than a year, and the City has put forward no plan for ensuring the continuity of the position… Meanwhile, more than one hundred new shelters have opened without any new NYCPS staff to support them. To help meet the need, NYCPS is ready to onboard more than a dozen temporary staff using federal funding that can only be used to support students in temporary housing….  However, the City has not yet given the approval for these staff to start due to new budgeting and hiring restrictions.”

What About Threatened Support for Children’s Needs and Public Schooling Across the U.S.?

Of course, most urban school districts do not face demands for supporting students in poverty on the same scale as the New York City Public Schools, but the challenge of finding dollars to support the needs of students living in poverty is an urgent problem across the United States in urban and rural school districts.

Right now even the federal programs schools have been counting on for decades are threatened in Congress. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education budget awaits a vote. According to the Washington Post, “This bill includes the deepest cuts of any of House Republicans’ 12 appropriations bills.”  A November 5, 2023, action alert sent out by the National Education Association explains: “The FY 2024 education bill is slated for the week of November 13, just days before (federal) funding runs out. The House GOP’s bill—which never made it out of committee, but could come directly to the floor—reduces education funding by 28 percent overall. The biggest cuts are in programs for the students most in need. The bill slashes Title I funding by 80 percent, eliminates Title II grants to recruit and retain educators, eliminates more than 50,000 Head Start slots, and cripples programs for English learners.”  U.S. Senators have been clear that the House GOP education budget (if passed by the House) cannot garner support in the Senate, but it is clear, nonetheless, that education funding has been turned by the GOP dominated U.S. House of Representatives into a budgetary impasse as Congress moves toward a likely government shutdown.

Federal support for child care is also in deep trouble. Freelance journalist Beth Ann Mayer reported last week: “The Biden-Harris Administration is breaking down the critical need for funding to help avoid falling off the child care cliff… The administration asked Congress for $16 billion on October 25 to ease the burden on the childcare sector after federal funding to stabilize the industry during the pandemic expired at the end of September. The proposal calls for an extension of child care stabilization, which was part of the 2021 American Rescue Plan. It enabled all 50 states and Washington, D.C. to pay more than 220,000 childcare providers caring for more than 10 million children during a time when centers were at risk of closing… Now, the administration is highlighting just how necessary this funding would be to individual states.”

In another blow for poor families, Congress failed to support the needs of our nation’s poorest families two years ago when its members refused to renew the FY 2021 American Rescue Plan’s expansion of the federal child tax credit. Congress reformed the Child Tax Credit in three important ways in 2021: expanding the amount of the full Child Tax Credit families would receive—from a tax credit of $2,000-per-child per-year to $3,000 (and $3,600 for children under the age of 6); paying out the tax credit monthly instead of in one annual lump sum; and making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable so that families with little or no income—who had been paying too little in income taxes to receive a full credit—received the full Child Tax Credit for each of their children just as middle and upper income Americans have received it for decades. At the end of 2021, Congress let these reforms expire.

Sharon Parrott, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explains what happened in 2022, after Congress cancelled these reforms: “The 2021 expansion temporarily fixed a flaw in the tax code that bars families with low incomes from receiving the full Child Tax Credit while allowing a married couple making up to $400,000 to receive the full amount. For many families who have experienced discrimination, inadequate schooling, a layoff, or poor health, and for families whose parents work in low-paid jobs like child care or home health care, the design of the Child Tax Credit compounds the inequities they face and does less than it should to help them make ends meet. Since the expiration of the Child Tax Credit expansion at the end of 2021, the credit has reverted to a maximum of $2,000 per child and no longer is fully available to all low-income children. Some 19 million children live in families whose incomes are too low to qualify for the full credit. This includes nearly half (46 percent) of Black children, 1 in 3 Latino and American Indian and Alaska Native children, about 1 in 6 white and 1 in 7 Asian children, and 1 in 3 children in rural counties.”

Investment in Children and Public Schools Makes a Difference for their Education

Rucker C. Johnson, professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research has studied the impact of increasing public investment in early childhood programs and in public school funding.  Here he limits his comments to investments in Head Start and public schools, but his point is that investments to enhance children’s access to support in early childhood must accompany enriched public education in subsequent years:

“(F)or low-income children, a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all twelve years of public schooling was associated with 0.46 additional years of completed education, 9.6 percent higher earnings, and a reduction of 6.1 percentage points in the annual incidence of adult poverty. Perhaps most important of all, our study found that a 25 percent increase in per-pupil spending throughout one’s school years could eliminate the average attainment gaps between children from low-income and non-poor families.” (Children of the Dream, p. 81).  “At the same time, we found that K-12 spending is more effective at improving the outcomes of low-income children when it is preceded by a well-funded Head Start program. For poor children, both Head Start spending increases and K-12 spending increases lead to significant improvements in educational and economic outcomes … Importantly, the long-run effects of increases in Head Start spending are amplified when children subsequently attend schools with greater K-12 per-pupil spending induced by school funding reforms.” Children of the Dream, pp. 102-103)

We Have Forgotten to Attend to the Needs of Our Children

In his blog,  the President of First Focus on Children, Bruce Lesley decries The Invisibility of Children: The Other Form of Neglect: “Having a real, civil, and national public debate over the concerns, needs, and best interests of children is so desperately needed… Unfortunately the … needs and concerns of children are an afterthought… In the recent release of Children’s Budget 2023, we show a severe drop in the federal share of funding to children from 11.97% in 2021 to just 9.89% in FY 2023—a nearly 18% decline. When kids need it the most, we are heading in the wrong direction.”  Of course, a sizeable part of that drop came from the cancellation of the 2021 Child Tax Credit expansion: “(D)uring consideration of an extension of the Child Tax Credit, politicians could not and would not argue that it was in the best interests of children to let the credit expire and for millions of children to be pushed back into poverty. However, that is exactly what they did, and child poverty more than doubled between 2021 and 2022, from 5.2% to 11.4%… The rationale was based on the perceived ‘deservingness’ of parents….”


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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...