Poverty and the Public School Classroom

When you hear the word “poverty,” what do you think of? Starving children in Africa? Subsistence farmers in Asia? Is poverty some distant concept? Something terrible, but far off? Yes, and no. Because, while poverty is terrible, it can also be close to home. Maybe as close as the public school down the street.

Poverty is the vexation of the junior high school science teacher with no budget to buy paper to print worksheets, tests, and notes. She teaches in a “low-income, rural district in southwest Mississippi” and $243 would give her a year’s supply of paper for 120 students.

Poverty is the hurdle faced by seventh grade math teacher in South Carolina. Her “very low income” school bought new math workbooks last year, in an effort to improve student test scores, but already the pages are falling out of their bindings as class after class of students use the same workbooks each day. $122 would buy a hole punch and 30 3-ring binders to stop the deterioration of the workbooks.

Poverty is the frustration of a college instructor turned science teacher at “a very small, rural school of only 141 total students (K-12)” in Oklahoma. 74% of his students qualify for free or reduced price lunches based on their parent’s income. Mr. C is teaching a geology class for the first time, and he pines for 3-D maps, landform study prints and a small rock/mineral specimen set “so that [his] pupils can have interesting, captivating laboratory exercises.” Only $98 more dollars and his wish can be granted.

Poverty is a barrier to many things in life, but access to basic educational supplies shouldn’t be one of them. We like to make jokes about impoverished grad students and underpaid professors, and they are true to a point, but most of us take things like copier paper, binders, and basic lab supplies for granted. Here are three classrooms where those things not only can’t be taken for granted, but they can’t be had at all, without your help. If we want young people to surmount those poverty barriers, then let’s start with making sure that they get good educations and some copier paper along the way.

This post brought to you by our DonorsChoose Challenge and Blog Action Day 2008.


  1. #1 Karen
    October 15, 2008

    I just made a donation to top up Mr. C’s request, and thought that I might also pass on some earth-science-related teaching resource links. However, there doesn’t seem to be a way to contact the requestors at Donors Choose. Any idea how one might make such a contact?

  2. #2 Martijn
    October 15, 2008

    Poverty is a barrier to many things in life, but access to basic educational supplies shouldn’t be one of them.

    I’m not an American, so maybe I miss something, but wouldn’t it be better to demand better funding for education from the state or federal government? Mississippi and Oklahoma may not be the richests states of the union, but I can’t believe they’re so poor schools would have to depend on charity for basics such as paper and binders. Surely some shuffling of the budget should be able to fix this?

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    October 15, 2008

    Poverty and ignorance go hand in hand. Disregarding Brown v Board of Education, the United States of America has been engaging for roughly 3 decades in de facto resegregation of public schools by race and income.

    There rural schools, and many urban schools, have been left behind. This administration has made things much worse, with a fatally flawed “No Child Left Behind” system that is about to leave most children behind.

    I left the high-paying Aerospace and Internet industries to be a college and university professor, and then took another paycut to teach impovershed and underserved children.

    Thank you, Alice and Karen for these small first steps in the right direction. and

  4. #4 Dr. Kate
    October 15, 2008

    Martijn: Since you’re not American, you might not know that almost all public school funding in the US comes from (local) property taxes. In general, the only state and federal funding is for special education and federal programs such as Title IX (equal support for boys’ & girls’ programs). So, for people to demand more funding for education basically means that they are demanding that their taxes be raised. (You can see the problem.) This system is in place because it apparently protects “states’ rights” and “local control.” (The argument being that if the feds funded all education, they could dictate curriculum. That’s either good or bad, depending.)

    Because there is no federal constitutional right to an education, it is very difficult to overturn this funding system (i.e., because it is not infringing a right). Although some states have successfully overturned property-tax-only funding based on state constitutions, those states (including my home state of New Hampshire, last time I checked) are not any closer to finding alternative sources of funding. (And, of course, state or federal money would still come from taxes, and we Americans are notoriously reticent about agreeing to spread our money around involuntarily.) So small, rural school districts, which have low property values and small populations, tend to be the hardest hit. The town where my mother taught for 13+ years was not wealthy, but we were not the poorest town out there; but my mother still had to spend her own money to buy pencils, crayons, books, and notebooks for her second graders.

    You’re absolutely right that better all-round support for education would be a much better solution than asking for donations. Unfortunately, that goal is far off. In the meantime, this is the only way for a lot of teachers to secure basic necessities for their classrooms.

  5. #5 Martijn
    October 15, 2008

    Dr. Kate, thanks for the explanation. Do I sound like typical anti-American Eurotrash when I write that that funding system is one of the most stupid things I’ve read about in months? It sounds like a left-over from the segregation days. Well, maybe I’m too harsh. It’s stupid, but it’s not as stupid as the Dutch province that lost €78 million of taxpayer money by putting it on an Icelandic bank account…

    Here in the Netherlands school segregation is a big problem too, especially in the bigger cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Strangely the US is often taken as an example for possible solutions. There was a big article in my newspaper some months ago about a US school district (if I remember correctly it was somewhere near Boston) where all schools had to accept a certain amount of pupils from low income families. According to the article this worked great. But apparently this is an exceptional system for the US? From what I understand it probably can only work in big cities which have both rich and poor neighborhoods within the same district.

  6. #6 Jonathan Vos Post
    October 15, 2008

    Martijn: the educational system in the USA is a paradox. The best American education is as good as any in the world. The mean and median education is 3rd world.

    This did not happen overnight. There have been several waves of change in the educational structure (at the level of local then county then state then federal control). There has been a pendulum swing back and forth between liberal-progressive pedagogy and discipline-basic pedagogy.

    The public school system is bankrupt, but cannot admit it. Many of the states that regulate systems are bankrupt. The global economy is in crisis.

    Everyone gives lip service to “children are our future.”

    But, as the American Empire has fallen and does not admit this, the future here is not a target for genuine investment.

  7. #7 Jim Thomerson
    October 15, 2008

    I was very briefly involved in a grant-funded program to improve science education in ghetto schools. The teachers in the program were buying pencils and paper for students out of their own pocket. The grant administrator had neglected to tell them there was $25,000 in comodities money in the grant. I think I fixed that.

    Similar patterns of funds which never reach their destination is not uncommon, particularly in poorer schools where there is no community culture of accountability.

  8. #8 Sicilian
    October 15, 2008

    I came to Texas from Colorado. When I was in school, funds were spread out by the state of Colorado at an equal rate. If I recall at that time it was about $3400.00 per student.
    In Texas if you live in a wealthy area with high values on houses, your schools are excellent. If you are in one of the many many rural areas where there are not a lot of property taxes coming in, your kids may not even have a biology lab becaue there are no funds.
    What this system does is makes for an uneven playing field. Poor kids have not had the exposure to college prep classes and have a difficult time getting into college.
    It is insane to think that a farm kid 20 miles from me doesn’t have access to the same kind of classes that are offered in my district.
    Funding of public schools in this state needs to be done in an equal, and fair way. The state needs to take all the property tax money into the kitty and then pass it out equally to all the schools.
    It will never happen here because Texas prides itself on “local” control. The unofficial definition of local control is “Don’t want my money going to that other district”
    I’ll get off my soap box now.

  9. #9 ScienceWoman
    October 15, 2008

    You all rock! All three projects are now fully funded. But there are plenty more worthy projects waiting for your $. You can find them by clicking on the widget on the top of the left column. If you don’t see anything you like there, apologies. But there are also lots of good projects in other ScienceBlogs challenges, too.

  10. #10 Jim Thomerson
    October 17, 2008

    Sicilian, Texas does have a “Robin Hood” system whereby rich districts are taxed and the money is given to poor districts. Couldn’t say how well it works, but, in theory, what you relate is not supposed to be true.

  11. #11 Jim Thomerson
    October 17, 2008

    Here is a link on funding of Texas schools. I think the Robin Hood principle is still in play in some manner.

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