MLK, Poverty, Schools, and the War Against the Poor

Today is Martin Luther King Day.

As much as we remember Dr. King’s civil rights efforts for African Americans, he was above all else a civil rights activist. A civil rights activist for all. In fact, he was in Memphis at the end, working to improve wages for garbage workers. All garbage workers, not just African American garbage workers. If there was a category of people he worked the hardest for, that category wasn’t a race. It was poverty.

And 5 decades later, the civil rights movement has widened its efforts, most recently working to insure that gay and lesbian people are treated simply as people, with all the rights of people.

But I worry we have forgotten about poverty. Or worse, that we have substituted “the war against the poor” for “the war against poverty.”

We have made poverty a scapegoat. By blaming people of poverty for their own lack of resources, we are seeing a trend toward cutting social services and programs, all while increasing support to government contractors, corporate bailouts, and tax breaks for the rich. In a country many claim to be Christian, I can think of few things less Christian.

Even if the motivation is not greed, but rather simply recognizing that programs for the poor are expensive, I would reply with a corollary to one of my favorite expressions about education, “If you think programs for the economically disadvantaged are expensive, you should try not having them!” What is the impact on society, on the economy, and on employers of not having supports in place?

Did I hear you suggest that the poor need to take responsibility for themselves and for providing for their families (as some of Nicholas Kristof’s readers do in his editorial, “Where is the Love?“)? One of my favorite Dr. King quotes is “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Dr. King Bootstrap quote

Perhaps nowhere is the war against the poor stronger that in public education. (Or maybe I just notice it more because schools are where I try to do my social justice work.)

We have known – at least since I was in my teacher preparation program in college (and my slate tablet tells me that was a VERY long time ago) – that the strongest correlate to standardized test scores was the socioeconomic status (SES) of the students. Almost no factor came close to SES. Not the curriculum. Not the educational program. Not the qualifications of the teachers. Not time on task. Not attendance rates. Not high expectations. Certainly not the level of threats of punishments and consequences for schools and teachers not raising their test scores. Just SES. Just poverty.

And yet, politicians are cutting funding to education programs that make a difference.

They are cutting early childhood funding to things like Pre-K, and Head Start, despite the evidence that each $1 spent on early childhood education returns $16 later.

They are creating school report card systems designed to “prove” our schools are failing. (Sorry, when you set the report card system up not with criteria for passing or failing, but rather to insure x% are “A” schools and y% are “F” schools – regardless of performance! – then run around proclaiming schools are failing and the school report cards prove it, you have constructed a lie to propagate a lie.) Surprise, surprise! Researchers at the University of Southern Maine found that Maine schools with higher poverty levels have lower student performance, that although poverty doesn’t explain everything, it was the single best predictor of student performance, and that SES was the strongest correlate to school report card grade.

And politicians are using the cry of school failure to shift public dollars to private schools and corporate run “public” charter schools. And where “school choice” makes good rhetoric, it ignores the fact that the poor don’t have the mobility and transportation resources to take advantage of school choice.

And politicians have set up school improvement grants so that a major evaluative component of your proposal is actually showing that your test scores are already on target (I thought the schools with struggling test scores needed the support to improve…?). And if test scores are strongly correlated to poverty, how do schools with the largest populations of low SES students ever get those supports? I guess politicians are only interested in supporting the race for those who are already at the top.

And yet, more than a 150 years ago, this country made a compact with its citizens to educate all the children of all the people.

So if we really want to address achievement and test scores (I mean, if we are serious about doing that and aren’t simply using it as an excuse to shift public dollars to private entities), or even if we simply want our schools to prepare all students to become contributing citizens, then we have to forget about the war on the poor and return to the war on poverty.

Thanks Dr. King. Thinking of you this morning.