Poverty's toll on education

Mal Hartigan

Asking a child what profession he or she desires commonly yields idealistic responses, such as an astronaut, doctor or veterinarian. These are considered honorable professions in American culture partly because of the intense amount of education they require. But, parents may say, anything is possible with an education.

There’s a reason why educated parents and the politicians who value education stress the importance of teaching our youth, a foundation on which the continued success of our nation relies. Each child, full of hope to pave his or her own bright future, is more likely to succeed with a suitable education.

Now, children are told a high school diploma won’t cut it. To avoid a lifetime of flipping burgers, a college degree is vital. If an individual lacks funds for increased tuition costs, loans have become the norm.

Though education appears a chief ingredient in America’s recipe for success, public funding is quickly disappearing with state budget cuts.

Cuts to higher education force colleges and universities to raise tuition rates, seen recently in the University of Missouri system. When coupled with increased enrollment, affording higher education becomes a student’s own burden.

Funding cuts mean not every child has equal opportunity to receive the same education. For America to preach ideals of equal opportunity while eliminating support for services that benefit disadvantaged citizens, specifically public education, is grossly hypocritical.

In Missouri, which does not have a progressive equalization formula to fund education, cities can vote for or against a proposed property tax levy. Property taxes are the primary source of public education funding. Therefore, education suffers in districts with depressed property values and low-income homeowners who reject higher taxes.

In my hometown of St. Joseph, roughly 60 miles from Kansas City, the tax levy supporting public education remains one of the lowest in the state. The city’s tax levy is nearly $2 less than most districts its size in Missouri, translating into $2,000 less per child per year.

Despite a lower tax, which results in less funding, and thus smaller salaries for educators and less money to maintain buildings, St. Joseph remains one of the top-performing school districts in Missouri.

However, its buildings and equipment are antiquated. Many schools do not have air conditioning.

The Kansas City School District is added proof poverty takes a toll on public education.

Students from low-income families have different circumstances than middle-class peers. Some were raised by single mothers who worked two jobs and couldn’t be around to reiterate the importance of doing homework. And with an indecisive, dysfunctional school board that swapped out superintendents too regularly, a plan of action to improve Kansas City’s school district failed to congeal.

According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 84 percent of students in the Kansas City School District qualified for free and reduced lunch based on their parents’ income in 2011, compared to 60 percent of students in the St. Joseph School District.

In 2011, St. Joseph’s public education graduation rate reached 90 percent, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The Kansas City, Missouri School District’s graduation rate in 2011 was an abysmal 57 percent, according to MODESE.

The action seen by residents has been startlingly brash, but unsurprising with the urgency to decrease costs and the long-term trend of decreasing enrollment. In 2010, the school board voted to close 28 of the city’s 61 public schools with hope of combating the district’s $50 million deficit.

In September 2011, the Kansas City School District lost its accreditation.

This broken system must be fixed. Multiple studies confirm high school dropouts are substantially more likely to be arrested or incarcerated than their peers with diplomas.

But public schools that fail impoverished youth aren’t the only victims. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon passed legislation that slashed funding for higher education in attempt to balance the state budget, which displaces tuition increases on students’ own dime.

The growing cost of higher education adds to struggle students from low-income families face to obtain a college degree.

In a nation that uses education to separate the haves from the have-nots and the successful from the unsuccessful, public and higher education must receive support.

Regardless of political affiliation or income, everyone must reach compromise to ensure success for the bright, young minds striving to become the next astronaut, surgeon or dentist.

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