Scrambling to Provide a Good Education

By Maya Rhodan
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Federal housing assistance recipients usually do not reside in areas near high performing schools, keeping many educational opportunities from reaching poor and minority students, according to a recent study by the D.C.-based Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC).

The study shows the schools nearest a third of public housing and Section 8 tenants are ranked in the bottom tenth percentile based on performance, meaning 90 percent of schools perform better on standardized tests. Around 25 percent of Housing Choice Voucher holders, who are allowed to choose where they want to live through the program, reside near schools that perform at roughly the same level.

Phil Tegeler, the executive director of PRRAC, a civil rights advocacy organization, wasn’t surprised by the reports overall findings, but was taken aback by the findings among Choice Voucher holders.

“It’s supposed to be expanding choice for families, but many of the 100 largest metro areas are still placing students in areas with lower-performing schools and schools with high levels of poverty,” Tegeler says. “A study like this raises some interesting questions about assistance. Namely, is the purpose to put a roof over your head or provide access to opportunity?”

The schools nearest Housing Choice Voucher Households have a median proficiency of 26 percent with 74 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch. For Black households, the percentile rank drops 6 percent and the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch increases to 80 percent.

While the majority of public housing recipients are White, the characteristics of schools near White households are less daunting with schools ranking in the 40th percentile and an average of 56 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunch.

But, what does that mean for the students?

Research by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance shows schools with high levels of poverty have been shown to have lower access to high-quality teachers and face issues like low-performance on standardized tests.

Nationally, African American students already underperform White students by as many as 29 points on standardized tests in math and 26 points in reading. However, research published in “Whiter Opportunity?” a compilation of studies on economic inequality and education, has shown that the gap between poor and wealthy students is nearly twice that Black and White students.

Consequently, many of these policies, which inadvertently keep children from obtaining a quality education, could be hitting poor Black students twice as hard.

Dawn Hawk is a principal at a elementary school in southwestern Chicago where 96 percent of the students live in poverty.

“It’s just a cycle for a lot of kids in high poverty areas, you have to break the cycle and the way to break that cycle is to provide the same resources that are available to those kids who are privy to those resources from birth,” says Hawk.

Five years ago her school, McKay Elementary, was at 27 percent proficiency, now nearly 60 percent of students perform at or above their grade level.

Hawk strives to develop a safe school environment that students can feel comfortable in, but also provide a quality educational experience for students regardless of their economic background.

“Equity in education is lacking,” says Hawk. “If you have resources you can do so much more, you can take your students places they’ve never been before—you could push schools like mine to another level.”

“The idea that in this country we don’t provide excellence for every student is simply wrong,” says Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, which advocates for quality public education.  “Lack of education in the 21st century, not having a high school diploma and beyond that, will hurt students for the rest of their life.”

Despite the general findings of the report, there are glimmers of hope among the metropolitan areas where educational opportunities among federal housing recipients are close to the national average.

In parts of Texas and California, the percentile ranking of schools closest to public housing tenants reaches as high as 75 in places like Vallejo, Calif. and 58 in El Paso, Texas.

Tegeler says this could be attributed to lesser amounts of segregation in western areas.

“With this question of access I think you see more integration and access in western states in newer metro areas, “ Tegeler says. “The federal government knows what it needs to do get more balance so more families have access to better performing schools, but people will need to speak up and demand that these programs give kids access to better opportunities. “