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Poverty stifles success in Florida’s K-12 schools

Safety, opportunity and enrichment matter just as much in students’ homes and neighborhoods as they do in their schools. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Florida lawmakers looking to improve student test scores should consider child poverty one of their top priorities.

Looking at 2018-19 school grades from the Florida Department of Education, elementary schools with the largest share of low-income students — students on free or reduced school lunch — had the lowest passing rates for the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) English Language Arts (ELA) test. These results suggest that in Florida, poverty rates correlate substantially with poor performance in school.

The relationship between poverty and school success is well-documented in education policy literature. A 2011 study by Misty Lacour and Laura Tissington, professors of education at Southern Arkansas University and the University of West Florida, respectively, synthesizes well over a dozen studies on the subject.

They found that students living in poverty lacked a range of resources essential to school success, from basic material needs to parental support.

A 2009 report produced by the Miami-Dade County school district found similar effects. In addition to resource barriers, students in poverty face also face family violence, exposure to pollutants, and hazardous neighborhoods with poor infrastructure and services. Each of these challenges either directly or indirectly makes it difficult for children from low-income families to succeed in school.

The consistency of these results raises provocative questions for Florida policymakers. School grades, principal placements and some teacher evaluations are based on student test scores, often leading to consequences for underperformance that are harmful to others besides the students.

Is it really justified to penalize students, teachers and schools for low test scores when they’re so closely tied to circumstances outside their control?

Furthermore, these findings ask policymakers to expand their understanding of education beyond just what happens in the classroom. Safety, opportunity and enrichment matter just as much in students’ homes and neighborhoods as they do in their schools.

Equal opportunity in education is essential to a strong democracy and a fair economy. To get there, however, we need to invest in Florida’s children, families and communities.

Any agenda for improving public schools thus needs a broader commitment to poverty reduction and shared prosperity. This means living wages for working parents, stronger social assistance for children and equitable development in underserved locales.

The scope of the child poverty challenge merits shared responsibility and cooperation across governments. School districts must collaborate with counties, cities, nonprofit organizations and the Florida Legislature to find solutions that will improve children’s lives here and now. With consistent care and dedication, the effort will pay dividends for our state’s future.

Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying political science.