Black Boys in Crisis: Income Disparity in Public Schools
In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.
In the United States, the majority of public schools are neighborhood schools. Schools, like neighborhoods, are for the most part separated according to social class. For low-income African-American children, the consequences are inferior schools and lack of access to high-quality education.
Before students even enter the public school system, low-income students are at a disadvantage. Low-income students are less likely than their wealthier peers to have access to high-quality preschool or pre-K programs, and they often have fewer opportunities for literacy development. Many low-income parents have jobs that require them to work at night, and on the weekends, so they are not as available for play-based education.
Many researchers highlight the “word gap” as a symptom of the disparity in early childhood education among low-income and higher-income children. According to a 1995 study out of the University of Kansas, children whose parents have professional, degree-requiring careers hear as many as 45 million words by the time they are four years old. Children whose parents are on welfare, conversely, may only hear 13 million words. Over the years, celebrities and politicians from President Obama to Hillary Clinton to Sesame Street’s Elmo have heralded the need for closing the word gap. Unfortunately, however, the challenges facing low-income African-American children can’t be solved by simply introducing them to a greater variety of words before kindergarten.
Once students do enter the public school system, their location will likely determine the wealth of their school. For students who live in the Southern United States, schools are most likely to be low-income if they live in rural areas. Students who live in the Northeast or Midwest are more likely to attend low-income schools if they live in a large urban area.
Race is a significant indicator of the likelihood a student will attend a low-income school. Nearly half of black students in this country attend schools with high rates of poverty. In fact, black students are about six times more likely to attend a low-income school than white students, regardless of their socioeconomic status. In some geographic areas, the ratios are so pronounced that schools are essentially segregated between low-income black schools and higher-income white schools. For example, in Cook County, Illinois, home of Chicago, less than 10 percent of white students attend low-income schools, while 75 percent of black students do.
In addition to the numerous problems associated with segregated schools, low-income schools do not provide the same educational opportunities for children. These schools tend to offer fewer extracurricular sports and academic opportunities, hire less-experienced teachers, and have larger class sizes.
The federal government recognizes that schools with high populations of low-income students often need additional resources to offer quality education. The remedy comes in the form of Title I funds. These funds are designed to supplement local allocations to provide the additional resources, staff, and services to low-income schools. However, there are loopholes in the oversight of local spending that undercut the equality efforts of Title 1.
A 2011 Department of Education report on the 2008–09 school year noted that more than 40 percent of schools that receive Title I funding spent less state and local money on teachers and support personnel than schools that didn’t receive Title I money. The result is that these low-income schools had high percentages of less-experienced teachers. As the effectiveness of the teacher is the most important element to a child’s success, the consequences of misallocation can be dire.
Black children from the inner city are more likely than any other group to be educated in subpar schools. If the education that they are given is substandard, why are we surprised that they struggle academically? Why do we continue to stand by and do nothing?