An Education Holiday Wish List

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.

A Broader, Bolder Christmas: Top Ten “Gifts” for Under the (Education Policy) Tree

10. A roof over every student’s head
Children who lack stable homes are more anxious and less focused than their peers who have adequate housing. They are also at higher risk for poor health and developmental problems and have lower educational attainment. There is no reason why any child in the United States should not enjoy stable housing. Moreover, we end up paying more for children to sleep in cars or in shelters than we would to provide their families with apartments. It’s time to fund the National Housing Trust Fund that was signed into law by President George W. Bush but never funded.

Courtney Thornton, left, 10, and her mother, Colleen Thornton, participate in a candlelight vigil in January outside the Chester-Upland School District administration building in Chester, Pa. Nearly two decades after being declared financially distressed, the long-struggling Chester Upland School District was on the verge of running out of cash. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

9. School breakfast and lunch for all eligible students 
Children who are hungry have difficulty concentrating and an impaired learning ability. The recession raised already unacceptable levels of child food insecurity to crisis levels. In Ohio, one in four children was at risk of going hungry in 2012. More than half of surveyed teachers told Share our Strength that they buy food to feed their hungry students. Eating school breakfasts is associated with increased math and reading scores, improved speed and memory in cognitive tests, stronger academic performance and improved attendance and punctuality.  It’s time for schools to adopt policies like universal breakfast and breakfast in the classroom.

8. Expanded access to quality pre-kindergarten 
When a Nobel Laureate economist (James Heckman), chair of the Federal Reserve Bank (Ben Bernanke) and one of the nation’s best-loved billionaires (Warren Buffett) all agree that quality pre-kindergarten is the smartest public investment, shouldn’t that give us pause? A recent report on Texas’ large, poor-quality pre-k program demonstrates that even low-cost programs deliver public benefits. Expanding access in states that already provide higher-quality pre-k — like Alabama, Illinois, North Carolina and Pennsylvania — would greatly increase those benefits. Further, Head Start currently serves fewer than half of eligible low-income 3- and 4-year-olds and needs renewed attention. Research shows that children who participated in a quality program during their preschool years are better prepared to learn, have higher self-esteem and more developed social skills when they start kindergarten. These investments are truly a no-brainer.

7. Elimination of waiting lists for child care subsidies
One of the policy areas hardest-hit by the recession is subsidized child care. In 2012, 27 states had child care policies that left families worse off than they were in 2011 and 23 denied assistance to eligible children. Only one state reimbursed child care providers at the federally recommended level, compared to 22 in 2011, making it tough for them to serve low-income children. Florida alone has over 75,000 children on waiting lists. It’s difficult for a parent to work, or even look for work, when quality, affordable child care is unavailable.

6. Affordable physical, mental and dental medical care 
Low-income children miss more school days each year — and many lack focus in class — relative to their economically better-off peers. This is due in part to higher rates of illnesses and fewer resources to address them and it further widens the achievement gap. We urge the president to appropriate $50 million in his FY 2014 budget for school-based health center (SBHC) operations. SBHCs provide access to care for over 2 million school-aged children, protecting them from cavities and gum disease, ensuring that they can actually see their textbooks and whiteboards, reducing diabetes through diet and fitness counseling, screening and treating for depression and diverting students from emergency rooms so they can stay in school to learn.

5. Expanded learning time that delivers enriching after-school experiences
As an increasing number of states commit to expanding the school day and year, we urge them to ensure that low-income children benefit from the same kinds of mind- and world-broadening experiences as their higher-income peers. Music, arts, organized sports, chess, trips to museums and the theatre — all of these kinds of activities build on what students learn from 9-3. Adding hours simply for test preparation, however, would waste the opportunity for the kind of after-school experiences that inspired Pobo Efekoro, who says that learning to play chess literally changed his life.

4. Experienced, qualified teachers in appropriately sized classes
Low-income and minority students are disproportionately likely to be taught by less qualified and uncertified teachers. These students also go to schools with larger classes, which make the individual, tailored instruction that at-risk students need very difficult to come by. President Obama would never send his children to schools without small classes  and great teachers — at-risk children need this kind of environment more than anyone.

3. Fully-resourced schools 
The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education we seek — and physical education our children need — require properly-equipped laboratories, libraries and gymnasiums in every school. Even before the recession, schools serving low-income communities were less likely to have these “amenities.” Now a growing number of districts view these basic academic necessities as extras and are stripping them from their budgets. We are certainly not going to produce learners and workers who are ready to thrive in a 21st century economy if they haven’t experimented with test tubes, played on organized teams or conducted sophisticated internet-based research.

2. An enriching, holistic curriculum 
Stop the madness! We say we want more STEM majors, creative thinkers, students who are college and career ready and fewer obese children. It is hard to imagine how making everything contingent on math and reading test scores–resulting in neglect of science, arts, music, critical thinking and elimination of recess — can do anything but ensure that we’ll achieve exactly none of those goals. Policies that provide all children with a holistic, enriching education — and that minimize an emphasis on standardized testing — would do far more to help young people achieve their potential.

1. National policies that enable parents, families and communities to provide children with what they need to thrive educationally
As the fiscal cliff looms, revenue and spending decisions affect not only on our nation’s budget, but our children’s educational and life prospects. The Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, WIC, SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, housing vouchers and other federal programs that might seem unrelated to schooling enhance children’s ability to succeed. You can speak out to protect these vital investments on the Half in Ten Campaign website.

This week’s post co-authored by Elaine Weiss. Weiss is the national coordinator for the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, where she works with a high-level Task Force and coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of policies to allow all children to thrive.

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