In response to “Moving chairs on the Titanic in poor schools” (Jan. 23 Kay McSpadden column):
Poor kids can’t learn. Do I have your attention? I don’t believe that, of course. After my own experience teaching in West Charlotte, one of the most economically distressed neighborhoods in North Carolina, I think it is a ridiculous assertion. Thus, I felt the need to respond when Kay McSpadden articulated as much – likely inadvertently – when comparing some public schools to the doomed Titanic.
Unequivocally and undeniably, students in economic distress face challenges that make their educational experience much more difficult. But the author mistakenly asserts that such challenges “sap their ability to learn” and questions whether North Carolina’s Innovative School District can overcome the “iceberg of poverty.”
Southside-Ashpole, the first school to join the ISD in North Carolina, is consistently low-performing. The student population is 87 percent economically disadvantaged. We should not be in the mindset, however, of assuming low academic achievement based on poverty. West Lumberton, in the same school district, is 89 percent economically disadvantaged, but its students met academic growth benchmarks for the past three years. At Henderson Collegiate in Vance County, 95 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged. Its School Performance Grade is an A+. Not only can poor students learn and achieve, they are proving it across the state.
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The education establishment would have you believe that money matters first and foremost, thus “limited funding” is a major cause of low achievement. But while Newark, New Jersey, spends $17,000 per pupil, it is one of the lowest performing school districts in the nation.
North Carolina devotes about $10 billion per year to our public schools, nearly $100 billion in the last decade. The establishment doesn’t always want to portray the full picture, though. A recent report shows large per-pupil funding discrepancies between poor and affluent parts of North Carolina by looking only at county-level funding. When all funding sources are considered, though, the landscape looks remarkably level. Students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools experience $8,842 in per-pupil funding. Robeson County, one of the poorest in the state and home to Southside-Ashpole, is at $9,407.
I recently visited Lincoln County Schools to see their great success in action. At $8,151 per pupil, students there are funded at the lowest level in the state. But last year, their students outperformed the state average – and teacher turnover in the district is significantly lower than the state average. Iredell-Statesville Schools students post similar results with just slightly more per-pupil funding.
Please don’t misunderstand me, money is certainly part of the equation. I am working with the General Assembly to continue increasing education spending. But that doesn’t mean more money for more of the same, status quo efforts. Our focus is on funding innovations in classrooms that create more success for students and better conditions for educators.
We declared a War on Poverty 54 years ago. It has been America’s longest and most expensive war. We are definitely losing.
We must stop asserting that we can’t improve public education until we fix poverty. The truth is the other way around. Poverty will end when we improve our education system, and all students, no matter their background, have the opportunity to work hard and succeed.
Johnson is the state superintendent for North Carolina’s public schools.