The pay-me-now or pay-me-later quandary

The pay-me-now or pay-me-later quandary

June 2nd, 2013 in Opinion Times

TCAP tests are stacked on a teacher's desk. Schools in poor areas have lower test scores.

Photo by Allison Kwesell

To borrow an idea from the United States Declaration of Independence: All students are created equal.

But their home lives and their schools are not, and that means the way they learn and how successfully they learn also are not equal.

Times Free Press staff writer Kevin Hardy, in two stories Wednesday and today, summed up a new report on Hamilton County's education gap: A child's shot at success in Hamilton County Schools is largely based on where he gets on the bus each morning.

Chattanooga has a stark line in academic proficiency -- read here, learning -- between white upper- and middle-class schools and black schools where most residents live in poverty. The new report, released last week by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, calls it "racial isolation."

But let's be clear: The chief driver is not race. It's economic. Children whose parents can't or don't read to them as toddlers start kindergarten and first grade behind. And children who are hungry can't focus on lessons as well as those who are full and healthy.

The gap also is economic from the standpoint of what we, both as parents and taxpayers, put into our children and into our schools. Likewise, it is economic in what we will get out of our dollars and concern -- or lack thereof -- in coming generations.

"Certain schools with high concentrations of poverty perpetuate under-performance, fueling inter-generational poverty and a seemingly permanent underclass," states the well-reasoned report.

This, of course, is no secret.

Some 60 percent of residents living in extreme poverty neighborhoods are black, and the Chattanooga area's ZIP code pockets of poverty and "underclass" roll with the city's geography. Generally, school scores and performance mirror the map.

The report does not blame schools or educators. Indeed, the problem is both simpler and more complex. The problem is poverty. The head-shaker is how to get our arms around working to fix it.

It's really a pay-me-now or pay-me-later proposition.

Unfortunately, we all still seem to be of a mind to just put it on tomorrow's bucket list. But tomorrow is fast becoming today.

• Head Start programs across the nation are under the gun of federal cuts, as are Title 1 funds that go to schools with higher numbers of children needing free or reduced-price lunches.

• Tennessee is ranked 49th in the nation in per-pupil funding.

• And in Hamilton County, school funding has actually gone down. Per-pupil spending in 2007 -- including federal and state money -- was $8,668. In 2012 it was $9,277, but once adjusted for inflation our schools actually lost $321 per pupil in education purchasing power.

"We, in fact, have gone backwards," said Superintendent Rick Smith.

That's no way to bridge any gap. Problem learners -- no matter what their trouble -- need more guidance counselors, more interventionists and tutors, more time, more everything

The Ochs report did point at least one finger -- if only obliquely -- at the county's most truculent penny-pincher.

"Local investments in education have stagnated and County Commissioner Fred Skillern publicly stated that the additional school revenues could 'come from their own budget,'" the Ochs report states. "The school system continues to draw money from its reserves to make up for the costs of inflation."

And the report pointedly said taking a head-in-the-sand approach to our education gap was false economy and a no-win for our communities.

"The social costs of low-performing schools are reflected in ... surrounding neighborhoods by high rates of violent crime, unemployment and disinvestment. This is both irresponsible and fiscally inefficient," the report states.

So, here's a choice: Is it better to spend $9,300 a year to educate a child or $25,000 a year to eventually incarcerate him or her?

That just may be the high cost of playing a see-no-need, hear-no-warning, bank-no-future game with education gaps.