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posted: 7/4/2014 5:01 AM

Poverty at the core of school failure

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  • Mary Shesgreen

      Mary Shesgreen

By Mary Shesgreen

I oppose charter schools because they address the wrong problem. The real cause of academic failure is not, as charter proponents contend, bad teachers, teachers unions and bureaucratic school systems. The real cause is poverty. Charter schools not only do not solve poverty, they create a major distraction from that simple fact.

Critics of our public school system like to point to Finland, which has the highest academic scores of any country, and use that fact to shame our system. But how does Finland succeed so well? They not only have highly paid, highly respected, 100 percent unionized teachers. They have minimal poverty. Their system generates economic equality and security. Presto: high academic achievement.

On June 23, at the Elgin Area School District U-46 public hearing about the proposal by Elgin Charter School Initiative to open an elementary charter school, I listened to the earnest, dedicated members of the design team as they described their proposal. It was clear that their motivation was a passionate desire to help "at risk" students succeed academically. And I listened to the earnest, dedicated members of the school board challenge the proposal on the grounds that diverting funds from U-46 would undermine their own genuine efforts to help "at risk" students. Both groups are all-volunteer, high-minded and credible.

But they were fighting over crumbs. Illinois funds its schools at one of the lowest rates in the nation. Because most of school funding comes from property taxes, low-income communities have poorer schools. Furthermore, the federal government has largely abandoned any commitment to funding public education.

Parents living in poverty often have two or three part-time jobs. Such families live with extreme stress. Parents do not have time to focus on helping their children with homework or attending PTO meetings. Such families may also be sinking deeply in debt to predatory lenders, or face foreclosure. That stress accumulates in neighborhood and generates multiple social problems.

Poverty also affects the "image" of a school and a community. At the school board hearing, several people reported that parents don't want their kids going to U-46 schools. I believe that these attitudes are about real or perceived low academic performance in many Elgin schools. It is also about real poverty in some of our neighborhoods.

If we really want to help "at risk" children, if we want better schools, we must seriously address poverty. That means we must reverse major government policy trends of the past 30 years. This includes the following: reverse the race to the bottom written into our trade pacts; demand living wages for all workers ($10.10 is still a poverty wage.); fully restore collective bargaining rights; insist that large corporations and wealthy individuals pay their fair share of taxes and that government bodies at the federal, state and local levels fully fund education so that every school is of the caliber of New Trier High School. And we must end austerity programs and fully fund social needs.

The billionaires who back charter schools -- the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Broad Foundation and others -- resist any acknowledgment of poverty as a cause. They call it "making excuses" for bad teachers. It is easier for them to provide (always deductible) charitable donations to charter schools, They also pour philanthropic dollars into political advocacy by their front groups, like Stand for Children, that advocate to impose the business model on education, as if that's what's lacking. When their reforms fail and often do serious damage to school systems and to communities, as in Chicago, they inexplicably increase the pressure to expand those policies.

I encourage U-46 to oppose to the charter proposal and to take the best practices and incorporate them in all U-46 schools.

• Mary Shesgreen is a retired marriage and family therapist and a longtime activist with Fox Valley Citizens for Peace & Justice. She lives in Elgin.

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