Kids in Poverty: A Problem for All Cities on the First Day of School

Kids in Poverty: A Problem for All Cities on the First Day of School

August 26, 2013 at 10:31 am CDT

Today in my city 400,000 students will take part in the first-day-of-school ritual. It’s not a happy day for everyone. It’s not a hopeful day for everyone. Forty-seven fewer elementary schools will welcome the children of Chicago today. Those schools saw their final last day of school in June. They were shut down, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure.

Chicago public schools are not in the greatest shape. They’re cutting arts, languages, recess and gym. They’re closing schools. They’re laying off teachers. The programs that stand out — like the gifted programs and magnet programs — are called “Options for Knowledge.” But you have to lottery into them. Or test into them. Even those who win the drawing or score in the top 10th of a percent can’t always take advantage. Some don’t want their kids on long bus rides or don’t have the flexibility to send their kid outside their neighborhoods. Often, but not always, that’s because of poverty.

Poverty means not having options.

A lot of children and their parents will hope that the “safe passage” routes the city is setting up — corridors where their kids will be safe from the violence of crossing gang territory lines — are actually that. But we all know the headlines are sadly coming. Nothing is perfectly safe.

But 400,000 kids in Chicago — and their parents — will brave it anyway and make the best of the crowded classrooms.

Because schools are just that important.

Think these are just big-city problems? Think again.

Let’s look at the poverty issue, which is critical when it comes to educational choices, and also critical because educational attainment and income potential are heavily correlated. More than 8.2 million American school-age children live below the (amazingly low) poverty line, according to my analysis of U.S. Census data. More than four in 10 of those kids in poverty live in towns with populations less than 50,000. Nearly three in 10 kids in poverty live in towns with fewer than 20,000 residents.

There are small towns in New Jersey, Texas, Michigan, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Georgia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that have more than 80% percent of their school kids below the poverty line.

Meanwhile, the federal government is reducing funding for Head Start programs as part of the forced sequester cuts. States are also finding themselves in financial difficulty and are dropping education programs or funding levels. In most states, funding remains below 2008 levels, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities . The American School Administrators Association estimated that 78 percent of school districts would have lay-offs this fall .

So increasingly, cities and counties are stepping up and taking matters into their own hands. This can be a huge opportunity for smaller cities especially — it’s a lot easier to turn around a school district with a few hundred or thousand kids, than one with a population the size of Omaha.

In San Antonio; Jessamine County, Kentucky; Seminole County, Florida; Colorado; and parts of Pennsylvania are among areas looking to raise revenues in part to cover new shortfalls from state and federal programs.

Options mean having the ability to get your kid and yourself into a better place if you want to. Because school districts are a key driver of relocation for families, the cities making the moves and improving will continue to attract people, and the cities that aren’t will see those, at least some of those, 20-something-year-old residents they’ve worked so hard to attract leave as they become 30-something parents.

The only question is how many of them will leave — and what will happen to all the families left behind with no options.

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Editor, What the Future; Editorial Strategy @ipsosUS, speaker, author @Buyographics. Past: @livability @adage @crainschicago.