Poor children, poor schools

BY SHAWN GUDE | JUNE 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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Likely lost amid speculation about Sarah Palin’s presidential aspirations and seemingly interminable coverage of “Weinergate,” a recent study by an Iowa State University sociologist offers up some sobering news: The percentage of Iowa children living in poverty is increasing faster than the national average.

As it is, that’s bad enough — poor children face sundry hurdles upon birth and are more likely be impoverished when they grow up.

But for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who has made improving Iowa’s education system one of his top goals, the study should be doubly discomfiting.

That’s because rising child poverty inevitably impedes public-education improvement. It’s no surprise, for instance, that Washington, D.C., has notoriously moribund schools when nearly one in five of the city’s children are living in extreme poverty.

According to the ISU study, the percentage of impoverished Iowa children remains lower than the national average: 13.5 percent versus 18.2 percent. But from 1999-2009, the percent of Iowa children living below the poverty line increased 3.1 percent; nationally, there was a 2.1 percent uptick over the same stretch.

“[T]he gains of the 1990s that reduced child poverty rates from their peak levels in the 1980s have been lost. The 2000s have been a ‘lost decade’ for improving the economic well-being of Iowa’s children,” writes ISU sociologist David Peters, the author of the report.

Children living in urban areas were the hardest hit, although child poverty grew in rural Iowa as well. (Suburban Iowa City has one of the highest child poverty levels among Iowa’s metropolitan areas, at 19.3 percent.)

Alleviating impoverishment won’t solve all our public schools’ problems. As scholars have repeatedly stressed, there are no education-reform panaceas. Addressing child poverty in a concerted and meaningful way, though, would provide a base on which to build a more robust education system; anti-child poverty initiatives need to be coupled with education reforms, both in the nation’s capital and the Hawkeye State.

Here are a few ideas: We should significantly increase teacher entrance and hiring standards, step up attempts to attract the smartest, most capable college graduates to the profession, and raise teacher salaries. Once they’re in the profession, we should give teachers autonomy and free them of the strictures imposed by pervasive standardized testing. De-emphasizing multiple-choice testing in favor of engaging and holistic curricula, the end goal of education wouldn’t be merely training the next generation of workers for corporate employment; critical citizenship would be prioritized over docile acceptance of the status quo.

Public charter schools could also be part of the mix — they contribute to educational pluralism — but they would have to allow unionization or some type of workplace representation for teachers. (This could be an interesting area for innovation, in fact: Maybe retain the current union model for traditional schools, but have individual unions at each charter school. Such a change could cut through union bureaucracy and allow for more decentralization and rank-and-file teacher participation.)

In addition, charter schools would have to be regulated to ensure quality, couldn’t be run by for-profit companies, and, ideally, would be midwifed by educators and community members.

On the whole, I have little in common with Branstad on education issues. But I have to give him credit: Next month, he’s planning on holding several town-hall meetings and convoking an education summit that will feature, among others, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (one of my bête noires).

Still, a summit is just a start. And while it may be easier to rail against teacher’s unions — as many Republicans and, increasingly, Democrats are wont to do — Iowa’s governor should look a little deeper. Child poverty, for example, isn’t the only thing hampering our education system. But it’s surely an encumbrance.

In order to improve Iowa’s foundering education system, then, Branstad needs to both tackle child poverty and craft his own agenda of visionary reform.

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