The association of poverty, especially the poverty of black families, with the comparative lack of educational achievement and educational attainment of many African American children is valid, but all too often the chain of causality is run the wrong way. Assigning the responsibility for improving educational achievement and attainment to the families of African American students is a convenient argument. If only those parents would make more money, save it, create successful business, receive investments from Bain Capital and move to the suburbs, their children would do better in school. Then nothing would need be done to improve the schools in the hyper-segregated urban neighborhoods to which many descendants of enslaved Africans are now consigned and public funds could continue to be diverted from those schools to schools attended by the children of middle class families. Or, even better, those schools could be replaced by profit-making privatized or semi-privatized schools along the very successful model of for-profit post-secondary colleges.
The reasons that these children are not as well educated as they should be is that the schools they attend are not as good as they should be. And the reasons for that include school district and state financial and other policies and actions.
School districts continue to provide more support to schools in middle class (read: White) neighborhoods by reducing support to schools in poor (read: black) neighborhoods. For example, in Jacksonville, Florida, at Raines High School, which, is 98 percent black, the average teacher salary in 2011 was $42,272, against a district average of $44,588. 58 percent of the teachers were absent more than one day in the school year and 48 percent were in their first year of teaching, as compared to a district average of 23 percent. At Fletcher High School, which is 71 percent White and 18 percent Black, fewer teachers were absent more than one day in the school year and just 4 percent were in their first year of teaching. The average teacher salary at Fletcher in 2011 was $55,076: 30 percent higher than at Raines.
And just to make things clear, at Raines, out of an enrollment of 952, there were 130 students (14 percent) referred to law enforcement, 181 out-of-school and 571 in-school suspensions, while at Fletcher just 61 of 2,252 students (3 percent) were referred to law enforcement; half of those were black.
It is possible that if students at Raines were not taught by ten times as many inexperienced teachers as the students at Fletcher they might learn more. It is possible that if the administrators at Raines were less liable to call the police on their students, conditions for teaching and learning might improve. [The excellent study by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, Breaking Schools’ Rules, proved that harsh student discipline policies vary with the race of the students: Black students are much more likely to be suspended, expelled or referred to the police than White students for similar behaviors.]
Jacksonville is just an example I happen to have at hand. Similar financial and administrative policies are in place all over the country, sometimes within districts, sometimes between them. An example of the latter is the teacher salary differentials between schools in Milwaukee and the nearby Waukesha district: $58,000 in Milwaukee; $81,000 in Waukesha. It so happens that the Waukesha schools have much better learning outcomes than those in Milwaukee—even for children whose families have low incomes.
The “virtue” of attributing low educational achievement and attainment to family poverty is that if that is the case the problem, under the current economic system in the United States, is insolvable. Since nothing can be done, nothing need be done. The “problem” with the attribution of low educational achievement and attainment to school finance and administrative policies is that it is solvable, if those policies and practices were changed. But of course that would require a commitment to the kind of democratic society that those policies and practices help prevent from coming into existence in these United States.