SADOW: Poverty Drags Down School Performance. How Can We Fix It?

Changing Louisiana’s dismal education achievement begins with understanding what the data say about how poverty impacts learning, not what ideology would have you believe.

Last year, lawmakers asked the Legislative Auditor to compile statistics on charter school students. The office expanded that to all schools and released the report last week.

It described several things. Blacks disproportionately represented the student bodies of public schools, with the total distribution basically reflected in the racial proportions of traditional schools, but with blacks heavily comprising attendance at charter schools and underrepresented in private schools. Further, blacks disproportionately attended worse schools, which is explained by the charter school numbers: by design, charter schools start at the bottom initially taking students from failed schools who obviously have been low achievers.

In turn, this produced a statistic showing that school quality varies strongly by race of attendees. Whites comprise 65.9 percent of pupils in schools rated A with totals that decline to 9 percent for F schools and “other” racial minorities (almost all Asian) go from 7.5 to 2.6 percent, while blacks along the same continuum go from 20.3 to 80.2, with Hispanics going from 6.3 to 8.2 percent although their largest proportions are in the middle categories.

Finally, and replicating data from elsewhere and over the decades, poverty also strongly associated with school quality, which also explains the racial proportions as blacks and Hispanics are more likely poorer than whites and Asians. Failed schools had 92.5 percent enrollment considered disadvantaged, defined in statute as any of receiving food assistance or Medicaid or use English as a second language or are homeless, migrants, incarcerated, or in state custody.

But the real scandal is in Louisiana that over half of students in A schools also were considered disadvantaged. In fact, five out of every seven school children in Louisiana are classified as disadvantaged. While there are no national statistics on this metric because its measurement varies slightly from state to state, a review of a few others shows just how horrendous Louisiana’s standing is: in Tennessee, it’s 33.8 percent; in Texas, 60.2 percent (because of a high non-English speaking population); in Ohio, 48.4 percent, and in Massachusetts, 38.2 percent.

This provides a partial explanation as to why Louisiana until recently had the worst schools in the country by achievement on national standardized tests (and it improved its ranking only by slipping less than other states during the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic). It’s been long known that students from poorer families, a large component of the definition, fare worse academically.

However, and particularly misunderstood on the political left, it’s less well accepted why that is the case. An informed understanding in the case of Louisiana begins with that even as it scrapes the bottom on student achievement, it isn’t the poorest state in the Union. The latest (third quarter 2022 unrevised) data on per capita personal income ranks the state 42nd, well above others in raw numbers. This tells us that Louisiana has a disproportionately large underclass, confirmed by it having a Gini coefficient (a measure of income dispersion) of 0.5, with only New York and Connecticut higher (higher meaning greater inequality).

That is not a result of economics, but of culture. The left peddles the notion that poverty comes from an economic system rigged against people, disproportionately non-white and female for reasons of racism and misogyny, or in a larger sense that poverty is a concept measured in monetary wealth over which individuals as individuals have little control because an economic system loosely based on wealth accruing to those in proportion to their contributions to society is somehow “unjust.” Thus, to combat it, massive redistribution in the name of economic justice must occur to correct the present illegitimate apportionment that has created so much victimization.

It is a view built on ideology, not reason or data. In reality, for a large portion of those in poverty, it come as a result of poor decision-making. Some portion of the population will have difficulty in escaping poverty for reasons beyond its control, either because of physical or mental disabilities or because of bad luck. For the former group to escape poverty, public policy should emphasize ongoing assistance, while for the latter temporary assistance is needed.

Yet the greater proportion of the poor are poor because they missed on opportunities to put themselves in better position to extricate themselves from poverty, stemming from a set of attitudes unconducive to accomplishing this. In the most general terms, these individuals price the costs and benefits of present actions inappropriately higher and they discount those in the future too steeply. They are much more likely, in the vernacular, to live for today rather than tomorrow – the underclass.


Note as well that given the resources they typically have access to if the U.S. “poor” were a nation, it would be one of the world’s richest. That many and their following generations continue to stay “poor” by U.S. standards is a testament to short-sighted policy that treats poverty as something merely caused by lack of income and thereby promotes a present orientation unsuited to rising from poverty.

Schools in particular as agents of socialization can break this underclass cycle, where education and a good one overrides values at home which may push children away from the present orientation of the people in their home environment toward a future orientation which is precisely what education is all about. But that means a rigorous school environment with strict discipline and educators that won’t excuse failure as something triggered by a society that makes people victims but who correctly identify failure’s locus as coming from within the individual.

Of course, certain children have tougher environments than other, and here policy of the last six decades hasn’t helped by treating poverty as a lack of money, not as it truly is, a lack of character (once discriminatory policies were excised from the law about a half-century ago which accelerated the immense change in societal attitudes away from backing these). People are rational beings; give them incentives not to orient themselves to the future by just throwing money at them and they’ll quite rationally stay the same, essentially wasting those resources by using them to cater to appetites in the present.

Beyond perverse incentives from federal policy, certainly Louisiana has done a poor job in both policy and administrative terms to ameliorate this. Exemplifying this, Medicaid expansion provided yet another disincentive to pursue wealth-building measures, and the state’s inability to protect children in brutal home environments impedes acquisition of any attitudinal future orientation imparted by schools or policy incentives.

Ultimately, policy-makers must understand the genuine causes of poverty and that families not having resources don’t create low-achieving schools, but that the relationship is non-recursive and highly subject to policy decisions on both ends. Proper policy aimed at changing attitudes, not just transferring wealth, ultimately alleviates poverty, which then helps to increase school achievement where the instruction within inculcates a future orientation, which then increases wealth while reinforcing that policy that focuses on people thinking with a future orientation rather than a present one.

In short, if Louisiana is serious about both decreasing impoverishment and improving educational achievement, because the two must happen simultaneously or improvement in neither will come, it will stop focusing on ideas such as raising the minimum wage, tax policy that encourages wealth redistribution, and ever more government spending on subsidizing too many who act not to take advantage of that gift, including blank checks for education. Only until the underclass culture changes, which won’t happen through increased wealth redistribution, will Louisiana see its dismal level of educational achievement improve.



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