Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Poverty and Education in the South

With rising poverty rates, more than 50% of public school students in the South are now considered poor. In Kentucky, it's 50% on the nose.

So, what's being done about it? More early childhood education.
One Southern strategy gaining momentum is strengthening early-childhood education. In at at least 12 Southern states, including Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi, the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in state pre-K programs or Head
Start is greater than the number of 4-year-olds in poverty, according to the Southern Regional Education Board.
I just heard a story about Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Steve Breshear wanting to put an emphasis on pre-school education as well. That's good as far as it goes, but the positive affects of pre-school can be lost unless schools make education more appealing to poor children than the alternatives. From my experience in Kentucky, I have some observations about the disadvantages of poor kids compared to middle class and upper-middle class kids in relation to education. The parents of poor kids tend not to push their children to excel in school as much as higher-income parents. They also have less in the way of books, magazines, computers, musical diversity, and other "educational" items in their homes. Likewise, the parents of poor kids don't take the same advantage of local cultural events like the Cave Run Storytelling Festival in this area and don't take the same kinds of "educational" trips to museums and historical sites out of their states either.

But the rubber meets the road when children encounter alternative "anti-education" cultures in middle school. In my part of Kentucky, students encounter a variety of peer sub-cultures that oppose educational values. Those sub-cultures range include the sex and drug sub-culture, the local lake, cruising, and fishing and can also include sports and religion. The question is whether the family environment reinforces the cultural values of education or whether the family environment reinforces anti-education peer values. With poorer families in Kentucky, the overriding value on family solidarity often works in opposition to a focus on education. It also might be the case that poorer families don't have the credibility with their children required to counter-act the anti-educational thrust of many peer groups.

If public schools in high-poverty areas like the South want to keep poorer kids on track, they need to figure out ways to better counter-act peer cultures. They need to hire better teachers, buy better educational materials, do more field trips, and in general work out strategies for making school activities more imperative. All of this takes a lot of money and well-spent money at that. Of course, there are charismatic teachers like Jaime Escalante who can work miracles on their own. Like most people, however, most teachers don't have that kind of talent, drive, and commitment. Ultimately, communities and states have to decide to invest the kinds of resources in education that are needed to induce poorer kids to keep up.

But this is where the South most fails it's children. Instead of spending more money on education than the wealthier states, the South spends less.
In 2000, Mississippi's highest per pupil expenditures were $5,631. Connecticut's lowest per pupil expenditure for the same year was $8,030.
This is the opposite of what it should be. The education of poor children will continue to lag in the South as long as the region is not spending significantly more per pupil than a wealthier state like Connecticut.

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