According to new analysis of 2013 school data, 51 percent of students in public schools qualify for free or reduced price lunch – the unofficial indicator of childhood poverty in the United States. This is a staggering increase since 2000 when 38 percent of children qualified for free or reduced lunch. In some states like Louisiana, New Mexico, Mississippi, the rates are much higher: 65 percent, 68 percent and 71 percent respectively.
In a total of 20 states, more than half of all public school students participate in the free or reduced lunch program. In another 16 states between 40-50 percent of its public school students participate.
States are responsible for 44 percent of their education funding. In many states this funding comes from property taxes. In areas where more people own homes and pay property taxes, there is more money for schools. In most areas this money cannot leave the district to be equitably distributed among the state. This leaves districts with a high proportion of poor families with fewer allocated resources to schools. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 34 states are contributing less funding per student than they did prior to 2008. Despite an “improving” economy, school budgets are still being slashed as funding continues to be cut. In fact, since 2010 funding has been cut to Title 1 schools (schools with high percentages of students that qualify for free or reduced lunch).
Because of capitalist oriented education reform policies, schools in poor neighborhoods feel the ever pressing need to raise test scores to be comparable to more affluent schools. If test scores don’t rise, schools lose funding or are closed.
The weight of the deficit between the needs of children and the poverty they live in has fallen on the shoulders of schools. I can always rely on high attendance when the weather is especially cold and parents know their children will be warm in my classroom. I can always rely on my students to take home whatever food we have left over from breakfast and lunch. Teachers across the country have become a vehicle for fixing the poverty epidemic essentially ignored by our government. Teachers are using their own money to buy wipes, socks, undergarments, shoes, pants, shirts, and snacks to make sure our students are clean, dressed, and fed.
We do this because we know students cannot learn if their basic needs are not met first. We do this because, as teachers, we come to love our students and their families and we want what’s best for them. But we also do this because we are forced to. Teachers feel the constant weight of school “reformers” looking to undermine our ability to teach, to break our union, and privatize our schools. We know that our students cannot learn and perform if their needs are not met, and their ability to perform is the only job security a teacher has.
Education does not have to be this way. It is possible for all students to have the schools they deserve. All that is required is a government that values the lives of its people over profit and exploitation. For example, the United States spent $1.33 million every hour for Foreign Military Assistance in 2014. That money could be allocated toward schools, healthcare, jobs, food, and affordable housing. Only then, will our students come to well-funded schools, ready to learn.