Poverty is not an Excuse; It’s Inexcusable!

I had the privilege of being on a webinar panel with Linda Darling Hammond, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, and Joseph Bishop as they highlighted the recent report “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence.”   You can find more about the report and hear the webinar over in the Collaboratory.

Here is the transcript of my remarks in response to the report and what it means to teachers like me working in high poverty areas:


I welcome the work and the findings of the Commission because it helps to keep much needed light on a very dark side of life in America.

According to Census figures in 2011 MS still leads the nation in poverty (officially its 22.6%) and our official median income is $36,919.  In the  northwestern counties of Mississippi, known as The Delta, where I live and teach, those numbers are doubled and halved, respectively.  32% of children in MS live in poverty. MS is the most food insecure state in the nation. In a revealing and painful article, Greg Kaufman at The Nation, describes how poor families, especially single mothers with children, are being systematically denied both assistance and educational opportunities in the state. Out of every 100 families with children in poverty in this state, only 10 receive TANF cash assistance.

In MS, we have something called the MAEP formula (Mississippi Adequate Education Program) which was developed by our state legislature in 1997 to equalize funding across school districts.

The state formula used to establish adequate current operation funding levels necessary for the programs of each school district to meet a successful level of student performance as established by the State Board of Education.

Purpose: Ensure that every Mississippi Child regardless of where he/she lives is afforded an adequate educational opportunity, as defined by the State’s own Accountability System

That formula has only been followed and fully funded twice since its inception (both of those were election years, and they came after Katrina when state used the infusion of Federal funds to do it).  More often now, Republican lawmakers want to scrap it all together.

However, The Parent’s Campaign of MS points out the truth of the matter is that MS actually spends very little on public education (less than people here are led to believe, and much less than needed). Specifically, MS spends about 23% of its annual budget on K12 education and when federal funds are included, its only about 16.5%. As the organization, Southern Echo, points out, school districts have been deprived in some cases of millions of dollars per year by the state to reach what the state itself defines as minimal funding needed to meet what the state requires each district to do for its students.

At that same time, there are in this state, corporations that pay little or no taxes at all.  For example, the state’s one Nissan plant in central MS will receive a total of 1.3 billion in tax payer provided subsidies. The Gov. just gave companies that drill for shale oil an 80% break on their taxes.  Meanwhile, lawmakers are riding teachers because the business community is complaining that state schools are not producing them a knowledgeable enough workforce.

Some of you may remember the Poor People’s Campaign started by Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.; that campaign started with a mule wagon pulling out of Marks, MS. Recently, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Julia Cass returned to visit Marks, who reported this:

“It is hard,” Cass says, “not to think about how Dr. King would respond to the place 42 years after the Poor People’s Campaign, [The] safety net set up in the 1960s and 1970s—food stamps, school lunches and breakfasts, Medicaid, housing programs, Head Start—has ameliorated some of the awful effects of poverty in Quitman County. But the education and support systems needed to pull the next generation—the children—out of poverty are vastly insufficient and spotty. The inadequacy of federal, state, and local support for poor children in Mississippi is underlined by this startling fact:

The after-school tutoring and reading programs in Quitman and three other Delta counties are financed by what is essentially foreign aid, a Foundation from the Netherlands”—which focuses on children and families in what it refers to as oppressed societies.

Moving the Needle

There are four things we can do to “move the needle” on this problem of equity in our schools right now:

1) Truth out. Make the truth about worsening poverty and continuing inequity in this country known.

2) Stop acting as if poverty is inconsequential to education. Critics are half-right: Poverty is not an excuse; it is a debilitating and degrading condition to which millions of America’s children have been needlessly condemned.

3) If we really believe that education is the way out of poverty, then stop making the schools that serve our poorest children the most impoverished schools. The schools we send poor children to should by design be well-resourced, well-staffed, and able to do what we know poor children need.

4) Encourage coalition building and resource sharing. In our book, Teaching 2030, we talk about the vision of schools as community hubs, providing safe places for students and their families where many services can be coordinated to reach those who need them most. Ex. Providing health screenings, child care so mothers can meet TANF requirements or go to school themselves, extended hours for afterschool enrichment programs that do more than just remediate. Such cooperation will help provide some services, but it also brings people together and helps them see what’s needed and what they need to be pushing their policymakers to do.

Thank you.

  • Deborah Meier

    Poverty is not an excuse, it’s inexcusable.

    The data pn America’s inequality compared to our “competitors” needs to be repeated and repeated – alongside of that “slogan”  “Poverty is not an excuse, it’s inexcusable.” 

    We need to stop the hypocrisy.  Our competitors also dont charge huge tuitions–if any–for college.  And have fully free medical care.  And care for the very young.  Our response to this justifies, for a change, that  “no excuses” label we have been using exclusively on poverty stricken schools and children.  .


    Thanks for the wonderful and concise piece–which should go viral. 

  • ReneeMoore

    Setting Examples

    Thank you, Deborah, for your feedback, and for your lifetime of example on how we can and should educate all children well.