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Poverty is our biggest challenge in education

People often ask about the biggest issue facing education in Idaho. In a word, it’s poverty.

But poverty is more than an educational challenge. A recent study by the Federal Reserve of San Francisco says the lack of an educated workforce will be a big drag on our country’s economic growth over the next decade.

Rod Gramer

Mary Daly, executive vice president of the Federal Reserve of San Francisco, explains that from 1950 to the Great Recession the United States economy expanded by an average of 3.5 percent a year. Over the next decade, Daly projects that it will grow by an average of 2 percent.

There are several factors at play here, but the most critical is that we are not “adequately preparing a large fraction of our young people for the jobs of the future,” Daly said.

You can see what she’s talking about in the so-called achievement gap between low-income students and their economically-advantaged peers. In nearly every education measurement, Idaho’s economically-disadvantaged students fall behind.

This challenge is magnified because nearly 50 percent of our students live in poverty, which impacts both our educational outcomes and eventually our state’s economic fortunes – unless we take proactive measures to close the achievement gap.

During the last Legislature there was an attempt to establish scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools. The idea was that these students would perform better in another environment.

Despite good intentions, this effort would not strike at the heart of our education challenge. Diverting much-needed funding away from public schools to put a relative few students in private schools would be akin to a doctor focusing on the symptoms of a terminal disease instead of working for its cure and prevention.

Instead, we must recognize the achievement gap challenge and implement proven strategies to close it for all low-income students. If we don’t, we’ll never get the academic or economic growth that our state needs to thrive in the 21st Century.

The gap between our low-income and economically-advantaged students begins when they enter kindergarten. Last fall 50 percent of all students entering kindergarten were not prepared to learn how to read. That percentage was much higher among our low-income students.

These students don’t have an equal opportunity for success at the start of their education. Many of them never catch up and are more likely to drop out of school, end up in the criminal justice system, on social services and unemployed or underemployed.

Two reports – one by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and the other by the Education Law Center – say getting children ready to learn when they enter kindergarten is the best way to ensure student academic success.

NCSL says another way is to give struggling students extra support. Programs like AVID, which gives struggling students practical learning and life skills, is an effective way to improve educational outcomes for these students. Unfortunately, AVID is only in a handful of our 115 school districts. Why don’t all struggling students have access to it?

We also need to make postsecondary education more accessible to all students, especially our low-income students. This is important because the modern workforce requires that students have post-high school education and training.

Unfortunately, the study by the Education Law Center shows that Idaho has a long way to go before tackling the gap. It gave Idaho a “C” grade because we provide little or no extra support for low-income schools (by comparison, Utah received an A). And Idaho received an “F” for its overall financial commitment to education.

In the last four years the Legislature has made important strides in raising teacher salaries, getting help for struggling readers and supporting dual credit programs to give students a jump-start on postsecondary. But more needs to be done.

An interim committee that is revamping our funding formula can recommend giving low-income schools extra funding to make education more equitable and help attack the achievement gap. This extra funding could be used for targeted programs like AVID to increase the academic achievement of struggling students.

We can close the achievement gap, create the educated workforce we need and grow our state’s economy if we recognize that poverty is our biggest challenge and that the only way to defeat it is for responsible adults to give struggling students an equal shot at success.

Written by Rod Gramer, president of Idaho Business for Education, a group of 200 business leaders working to improve education.


Rod Gramer

Rod Gramer

Rod Gramer is president and CEO of Idaho Business for Education, a group of Idaho business leaders dedicated to education excellence.

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