New US Department of Education numbers, reported this week, show that there’s been a 72 percent increase in the number of homeless students, pre-K through high school, in just three years, between the 2008 recession and the 2011 school year.
That means well over one million homeless children are enrolled in school in the most prosperous country in the world. This population doubtless overlaps with the country’s 400,000 foster children, and is a subset of the 31 million schoolchildren whose family incomes are low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, because their families earn below 185 percent of the poverty level ($43,567 for a family of four).
Of 56 million students total, then, in both public and private schools, it’s a safe bet–and a national shame– that a majority of them sometimes worry about getting enough to eat or having a safe place to sleep.
Why do these well-known facts bear repeating? This is a blog about education reform and educational innovation. And there’s a not-so-secret fault line in the ed-reform and innovation community. It’s not between Apple and Google, but between those who believe that education, on its own, constitutes an anti-poverty strategy, and people who believe that poverty and inequality is the bigger problem and education only part of the solution.
The higher-ed division of the argument goes like this: Some say we have a “skills gap,” that America’s future economic competitiveness and prosperity can be remedied by more relevant, employer-friendly and entrepreneurial education that allows people to make their own opportunities. Others argue that it would be more reasonable to speak of a “jobs gap”–that it doesn’t matter if you study STEM or get a JD or learn to crush code, corporations are taking a larger and larger share of profits, leaving ordinary people to scramble for poverty-wage service jobs or “gigwalking.”
In K-12, the divide is starker. “Zip code is not destiny,” says the “no excuses” movement. The rest side with legendary reformer John Holt: “Poverty is not a reading problem, and better reading won’t solve it, and it’s a cruel lie to pretend that it could or will.”
Poverty is not a technological problem either. Education is important for equality of opportunity, but it can’t stand alone. Zip codes may not be destiny, but they’re pretty damn important, and we don’t make their effects smaller by wishing them away.
Sometimes I worry that as a progressive-leaning person focused on education reform I’ve backed myself onto a ledge. If you concern yourself with transforming education, day in, day out, you’re conducting your work entirely on the territory of those for whom education is the only politically and socially palatable antipoverty policy. If you try to widen the lens, like Diane Ravitch does in her newest book, you end up talking about a vast set of ideas that have nothing to do with education as currently construed: prenatal care for poor women, mental health services, and the like.
But maybe that’s not so important. Maybe the point is just to draw a line in the sand and say: poverty is the problem. Education is just one piece of the answer. Perhaps the most important purpose of education is to equip all young citizens to challenge the order that permits an army of them to sleep in the streets.
Do you agree?