No, Poverty Isn’t Destiny…Or An Excuse
September 22, 2015
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by Pete Cook

When the Democratic candidate for Governor, John Bel Edwards, met with the Editorial Board of Lafayette’s Daily Advertiser on Tuesday to explain how “things would be different in an Edwards administration,” the two-term State Representative had a lot to say about the state of public education in Louisiana.

Some of the points he made were commendable, like his support for a stable higher education funding model that would avoid the fiscal nightmare our state’s public universities suffered through earlier this spring. However, as we’ve seen recently, when the subject turned to K-12 education, Edwards – who believes he’s “the engineer who can put the engine back on the tracks” – instead went off the rails. For example, The Advertiser reported:

“Edwards said he embraces the state’s push for higher standards for K-12 education, but not the process the state has chosen to pursue them. He said he’s for accountability, but believes letter grades are unfair to schools with high percentages of impoverished children. Teachers are too often compelled to teach to the test, he said, and who can blame them? Their jobs depend on it.”

While Edwards’ equivocal positions on high academic standards and accountability pose a problem, I was more disappointed that he proceeded to trot out the old “poverty trumps education” argument, one of the teachers unions’ favorite talking points:

“For example, he said, his own son’s school, where his wife teaches music, drew an ‘F’ letter grade from the state, but he said poverty, not teachers, was what undermined that public school. Teachers there were ‘fine,’ he said, but most of the students came from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

In effect, Edwards is saying we we should lower our expectations for certain children just because they happen to come from poor families.

Let’s examine John Bel Edwards’ statement for a moment. It’s true that Amite Elementary Magnet School, where his wife Donna worked until recently, does serve a high proportion of low-income students. In 2014, over 95% of the school’s students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. On the other hand, Amite Elementary received a “D” in 2013-14 (S.Y. 2014-15 haven’t been issued yet) and a School Performance Score (SPS) of 54.7 (out of 150) – i.e., the school is not designated as failing as Edwards claims.

However, the more important question is whether a “D” grade and a SPS of 54.7 is the most we should expect from a school where the students are nearly all low-income. To test that, I decided to look at 2014 data of New Orleans public schools where 95% of students were free/reduced lunch eligible. Here’s what I found:

Edit
LEA School %FRPL 2014 Grade 2014 SPS 2013 Grade 2013 SPS
Tangipahoa Amite Elementary Magnet School >95% D 54.7 F 49.6
RSD KIPP Central City Academy >95% B 95.2 B 96.9
OPSB Mary Bethune Elementary >95% B 93.7 B 88.1
OPSB Mahalia Jackson Elementary School >95% B 93.7 B 88.1
RSD Martin Behrman Elementary School >95% B 93.3 B 92.1
OPSB Robert Russa Moton Charter School >95% B 86.7 D 61.9
RSD Esperanza Charter School >95% B 85.6 C 75.3
RSD Lagniappe Academy of New Orleans >95% C 82.3 B 85
RSD Lafayette Academy >95% C 81.7 C 79.7
RSD ReNew SciTech Academy at Laurel >95% C 81.6 C 75
RSD Arthur Ashe Charter School >95% C 81.2 B 90.2
RSD James M. Singleton Charter School >95% C 80.8 D 56.9
RSD Akili Academy of New Orleans >95% C 80 C 71.6
RSD KIPP Central City Primary >95% C 78 C 75.2
RSD Langston Hughes Charter Academy >95% C 77.6 C 81.3
RSD Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence >95% C 75.9 D 64.1
RSD Samuel J. Green Charter School >95% C 74 C 78.4
RSD Sophie B. Wright Learning Academy >95% C 73.9 B 88.5
RSD Cohen College Prep >95% C 72.9 D 63.5
RSD Mary D. Coghill Charter School >95% C 69.7 NA NA
RSD Nelson Elementary School >95% D 67.3 C 79.5
RSD McDonogh City Park Academy >95% D 66.4 C 77.6
RSD Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep >95% T 66.1 NA NA
RSD Fannie C. Williams Charter School >95% D 64.8 T 75.7
RSD McDonogh #32 Elementary School >95% D 64.4 C 70.9
RSD Harriet Tubman Charter School >95% D 63 T 72.7
RSD ReNew Dolores T. Aaron Elementary >95% D 62.5 T 64.4
RSD Arise Academy >95% D 58.3 C 72.5
RSD McDonogh 42 Charter School >95% T 58.3 T 39.4
RSD William J. Fischer Elementary School >95% D 56.8 C 76
RSD ReNew Schaumburg Elementary >95% T 55.7 NA NA
RSD ReNew Cultural Arts Academy at Live Oak >95% D 55 D 60.1

In short, there were 31 public schools in New Orleans that scored higher than Amite Elementary in 2014, even though nearly all of their kids were low-income. What’s more, some schools in New Orleans, like Mary Bethune Elementary, are knocking the cover off the ball. Nearly 80% of Bethune students were performing at or above grade level in 2014, as opposed to only 46% of students at Amite Elementary.

Schools like Mary Bethune refute the “poverty trumps education” argument.

Now, I’m not raising these facts to denigrate the hard work of Donna Edwards or her former colleagues at Amite Elementary Magnet School. I’m also not saying that poverty doesn’t present considerable challenges for educators – as a former teacher in New Orleans’ public schools, I’ve faced those very challenges.

Nevertheless, it’s clear there are many public schools in Louisiana’s low-income communities where students are beating John Bel Edwards’ low expectations hands down. We live in a state with one of the highest levels of child poverty in the country and we can’t allow our politicians to simply those write those kids off because it’s politically expedient.

This post was originally published on PE+CO on September 17, 2015.

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