Poverty as a math problem: Why can’t we provide quality education for all?

Editor’s Note: This is the second column in a six-part series under the theme “Poverty is a math problem (and so much more).” 

Poverty must not be a bar from learning and learning must offer an escape from poverty.
— President Lyndon B. Johnson

Education is the key to opportunity. It’s a ticket out of poverty.
— President George H. W. Bush

The best anti-poverty program is a world class education.  
— President Barack Obama

The above quotations from the 36th, 41st and 44th presidents say pretty much the exact same thing: Access to education, particularly a quality education, is critical to financial empowerment. So in a nation such as the United States, whose $18 trillion economy accounts for more than 24 percent of the entire global economy (nearly 10 percent more than that of China), one might presume that America’s public education systems are the envy of world.

However, the most recent data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) — which measures performance outcomes in science, reading and math — reveals that the United States respectively ranks 25th, 24th, and 40th in those categories among 70 industrialized nations. Around the same time the PISA report was issued, the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that from 2008 to 2014 state and local funding for public schools decreased in 36 states.

Does this mean America no longer values education? Well, there are still more than 20 million young people who fill our colleges and universities at an average annual cost of more $24,000 per student at public institutions and approximately twice that at private institutions. But what about those for whom post-secondary education is out of reach, either to due financial considerations, lack of access to quality primary and secondary schools, or both?

With modest effort, one can instantly access dozens if not hundreds of studies that cite the inextricable link between education — or the lack thereof — and poverty going back more than 50 years to the 1966 publication of Equality of Educational Opportunity (also known as The Coleman Report). So it’s no secret that substandard educational opportunities and resources are a root cause of poverty.

But as Sean Slade, director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), writes in the Huffington Post, not only do poverty and education have a reciprocal relationship, but America’s educational and political structures inherently preserve and exacerbate this cycle of inequity.

That brings us to our math problem. In a 2016 essay, Alana Semules of The Atlantic focuses on educational disparities in one of America’s wealthiest states, Connecticut. She writes:

“While students in higher income towns such as Greenwich and Darien have easy access to guidance counselors, school psychologists, personal laptops, and up-to-date textbooks, those in high-poverty areas like Bridgeport and New Britain don’t. Such districts tend to have more students in need of extra help, and yet they have fewer guidance counselors, tutors and psychologists, lower-paid teachers, more dilapidated facilities, and bigger class sizes than wealthier districts.”

In Connecticut, as in a number of states throughout America, a significant slice of educational funding is based on the amount of property taxes collected in a given locale. As such, the amount of available dollars to support public schools is often far less in low-income areas. In fact, a Washington Post article notes that in roughly half of the country, “richer school districts get more local funding than poorer districts.”

Here in Minnesota, a Department of Education study shows that there has been significant ebb and flow during the last 25 years in the state’s reliance on property taxes to help fund public schools. For example, in 1991, nearly one-third of public education was supported by local property taxes. By 2003 the State increased its level of funding by nearly 20 percent and reduced the reliance on property taxes from 32 percent to 12 percent.

However, over the next decade those numbers began to trend in the opposite direction, leading educator Doug Birk to write in a Star Tribune editorial that Minnesota’s “policy for funding public education is inequitable, irrational and inexplicable.”

Since 2014, the State has taken steps to close the spending gaps as well as the achievement gap. Nevertheless, most Minnesota schools, particularly urban districts, are still failing to make much of a dent in these disparities.

In the last four decades, almost every state in the union has faced litigation with regard to funding inequity, as detailed in Michael A. Rebell’s Courts and Kids: Pursuing Educational Equity through the State Courts. Yet these inequities continue to persist in spite of a mountain of research that underscores the critical value of equitable financial investment in positive academic and socioeconomic outcomes, including a 2015 study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In this report, titled “The Effects of School Spending on Educational and Economic Outcomes: Evidence from School Finance Reforms,” policy scholars C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker C. Johnson and Claudia Persico illustrate that a 20 percent annual boost in school funding for a poor child projects to a 25 percent increase in income and a significant drop in the probability of poverty as an adult.

And, additional research from Sean F. Reardon, senior fellow at the Stanford University Institute for Economic Policy Research, reveals that the academic gap between socioeconomic classes is even broader than the gulf between racial groups.

So again, it is pretty clear to me that the relationship between education and poverty is a math problem. The data suggest as much, as do policy analysts, academics, educators, activists and journalists at the local, state and national levels.

Why then, 63 years after Brown v. The Board of Education, can we not fix this problem? Are we indifferent? Unwilling? Unable?


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104

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