All In The Family

By Louis R. Avallone

He was well-intentioned enough, in his explanation, as this well-known member of our community called me Thursday evening before the vote to discuss the election. “We must pass this tax renewal for the Caddo Parish school system,” he urged, “to make a difference for the children and the future of our community,” he added, as the passion in his voice grew more palpable with each syllable he spoke. He believed that spending an additional $108 million in tax dollars, to improve the physical conditions of our school buildings and the teaching environment would lead to improved educational outcomes, especially for disadvantaged students, who need it the most.

But the facts don’t seem to bear that out because even when schools of disadvantaged children are well-financed with new facilities, it’s the conditions outside of the classroom (i.e parenting, poverty, homelessness, etc.), which consistently produce the widest disparities we routinely see in educational outcomes. For example: only 2 out 3 Caddo Parish high school seniors graduated in 2014, in a school system that spared little expense to educate them – spending $480 million last year, or $12,000 per student.

But just as we have spent billions of dollars on food stamps and welfare, Medicaid, Head Start – you name it – without any change in the poverty rate over the past 50 years, our spending more money on education will not change the quality of our children’s education unless, and until, we change the quality of our children’s parents first.

That’s a tough one, though, I know. For some, it seems an impossible task, since it’s much easier to talk about increasing teacher salaries in order to attract better teachers, or to reduce class sizes, or to supply the children with new technology. It’s easier to blame the school administrators for not holding teachers accountable for poor test scores and below-average graduation rates, than to address the 800 lbs. gorilla in the room: parenting.

That’s tough also, though, because we have an epidemic of children being born to unwed mothers (40% and rising). Aside from that, the poverty rate for these single-mother families is nearly 5 times more than the rate for married-couple families. And boys born to single-mothers (who didn’t finish high school) are twice as likely to end up in prison, as well.

You see, poverty is the most significant predictor of academic success, bottom-line (although it wasn’t so much so prior to the 1960s, but that’s another story for another day).

You see, spending $108 million, or $800 bazillion, on new schools won’t improve a single child’s education whose parents’ least concern is a designated homework time because they are homeless (there are more than 1 million public school students in the U.S. that are homeless). What if you are part of the 33% of children in the U.S. that live without the presence of a father? Children achieve higher education levels with an involved father early on. Or if you don’t have a designated dinner time because you don’t know where your next meal is coming from (more than 1 out of every 4 children in the U.S. is enrolled in the food stamp program now, which is more than ever before).

Or if there is no structure at home and you’re shuffled from place to place, because your mom is on crack, and your dad has disappeared or is in jail (research shows for every 2 moves in a school year, a child essentially loses that year of learning altogether).

Or if there’s no one to read to you at night, and build your vocabulary by sounding out the sounds that words make (many children who enter kindergarten without pre-reading skills in place simply never catch up).

How can a child be expected to perform academically as well as other children who don’t face those challenges? It’s tough.

The federal government, though, is responding by funding public boarding schools, in selected cities, at a cost of $35,000 per student, per year. These at-risk children live at school for 5 days a week, and they get to go home to their parents on the weekends. Certainly, that’s one way to “fix” the conditions outside the classroom that plague academic performance, and turn it around.

But with 16.4 million children in the U.S. living in poverty, paying for this “fix” and enrolling them all in public boarding schools would be cost prohibitive ($574 billion per year). So, how about we just fix the real issue, and find a way to make better parents, instead, and then make a better school system, in the process?

I believe voters really said “no” earlier this month to spending $108 million for new school construction because they realize we don’t have a general education crisis in our country, or a revenue issue here in Caddo Parish. Instead, we have a parenting crisis that is at the root of our education system and that spending money on new classrooms, carpet, and fresh paint simply won’t fix any of that – not at all.

If we want to improve education system and the future of our community, we must somehow start at the beginning, and with something that money cannot buy: the family. After all, in the words Frederick Douglas, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

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