SearchHomeMenuSign UpDonate

Confront Poverty to Improve Education

Commentary
October 3, 2011

by Juan Carlos Ordóñez

Oregon’s path to achieving excellence in education just got steeper.

No, this development has nothing to do with Oregon’s recent decision to seek a waiver of the No Child Left Behind federal law, which itself may be a good move. Indeed, it has nothing to do with testing, teachers or even schools.

Rather, the pall over education was the news that Oregon’s child poverty rate increased again last year, with more than one in five kids in the state living in poverty. For until Oregon makes sustained progress in eradicating poverty, excellence in education will remain out of reach.

It’s no secret that children who grow up in poverty face serious obstacles to learning. Compared to better-off children, poor kids are more likely to be exposed to pollution, toxins, noise and crime. They are more likely to experience family instability and separation, as well as hunger and violence.

Such conditions produce chronic levels of stress, impairing children’s cognitive abilities. And research in the field of neurobiology indicates that poverty early in life harms a child’s brain development.

Not surprisingly, children who grow up in poverty lag in their educational achievement compared to better-off kids.

“Fifty years of social science research has confirmed, over and over again, that the best predictor of student achievement is not teacher quality or any other school influence, but the social and economic circumstances of the children,” says Richard Rothstein, a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute and former national education columnist of The New York Times.

Rothstein’s point echoes a January 2011 report by Gov. John Kitzhaber’s Early Childhood and Family Investment Transition Team, which noted that factors such as poverty and family instability “have an almost linear correlation with school failure, school dropout, substance abuse, social dependency and involvement in the criminal justice system.”

Unfortunately, poverty reduction has not found its way onto the Governor’s education agenda. In a speech in September, Governor Kitzhaber set the bar at 100 percent of children graduating from high school and 80 percent of students moving on to secondary education or training. While acknowledging the detrimental impact that poverty has on children’s learning, the approach he articulated focuses on “outcomes and proficiency,” not on removing the economic factors that undermine educational achievement.

The talk of an “outcomes-based” approach to education reform tracks the language of a July 2011 report by the Governor’s Oregon Education Investment Team.

The outcomes-based approach seems flawed on several grounds, but none more glaring than the assumption that education reform can succeed without a plan to reduce poverty. No viable “transformation” of the education system is possible when the number of poor children continues to grow.

To reach his education goals, the Governor must confront poverty. Long ignored by lawmakers and governors, years ago our state legislature established in law “a state goal to eliminate or alleviate the causes and conditions of poverty.” Gov. Kitzhaber should embrace that goal, develop a plan to accomplish it, assign someone in state government the responsibility for implementing it and hold that person accountable.

An effective poverty-reduction plan would include, at a minimum, boosting the Oregon Earned Income Tax Credit, restoring the cuts to — and strengthening — the Job Opportunity and Basic Skills (JOBS) program for very low-income households with dependent children, improving access to subsidized day care for low-wage workers, investing in affordable housing for low-income households, and enhancing job and skills training for low-income workers in our workforce development system.

There are many good economic and moral reasons to mount an all-out effort against poverty, especially child poverty. Add to that list making strides toward excellence in education.


Juan Carlos Ordóñez is the communications director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

Posted in Education.

More about: eitc