The Inconvenient Truth of Child Poverty

Child Poverty Rates: Maine’s child poverty rate is slightly lower the national average at 18.2 percent. However, this figure is skewed by poverty rates in southern Maine that are as low as 13 percent. Washington County has the highest rate in Maine at 30 percent.

Why is it that we hear so much about the fact that student test scores in the United States are lagging behind other countries in the industrialized world?

Why is it that we hear so little about the fact that when it comes to child poverty,  the U.S. ranks as worst among similar countries in the industrialized world?

Like the melting of distant glaciers, child poverty is an an inconvenient truth that conservatives would rather avert their eyes from.  Confronting the truth of child poverty, would — after all –  force them to come to terms with the shortcomings of their own political ideals.  Far more convenient — and politically expedient — to hold that the impoverished 8-year old can raise himself on the bootstraps of his own academic achievement.   According to this narrative, any lack of achievement can rather conveniently be blamed on political adversaries such as teachers and teachers unions.

While the correlation between economic status and academic achievement has long been recognized, the convenient new conservative narrative holds that we should make no excuses for kids living in poverty.  With the right teachers and right administrators, the mantra holds, those kids can do as well as their more privileged peers.

However, it is not clear whether that mantra has any basis in fact.  As Valerie Strauss states, “The “no excuses” rhetoric . . . is one that is dearly beloved by the corporate education reformers  because it allows them to perpetuate (what many recognize to be) the American myth of meritocracy and continue the privatization movement under the guise of “improving schools” while avoiding addressing deeply entrenched inequities that exist in our society and are perpetuated by school structures. ”

Strauss goes on to explain how many of the measures that are part of the no excuses movement may actually hurt impoverished children rather than helping them:  “Standardized tests have cultural and racial biases; charter schools have been shown to disproportionately underserve children of color, English Language Learners, and special needs students; closing down “failing” schools forces children out of their home communities and disproportionately puts teachers of color out of work.”

From a competitive testing standpoint, at least, there may not be anything wrong with American schools at all.  As Mel Riddile documents, students at American schools that have low poverty rates actually test out better than their overseas counterparts.

Simply put, as Eugene Robinson argues, family income is a much more important factor in determining academic achievement than the much ballyhooed “teacher effectiveness.”

As stated by Tre’ Maxie in his Seattle TImes Op-Ed, in recent years, the income gap has surpassed the gap between racial groups in terms of limiting academic achievement:  “The achievement gap between low income and non-low income students has surged by more than 40 percent, and is now double the gap between African Americans and whites, according to a recent study by Stanford University Professor Sean Reardon.”

What we know is that poor kids face a whole set of physical, emotional, and mental challenges that are not faced by kids who are better off.   What we know is that the lives of those kids aren’t likely to get any better unless we as a society come together and, somehow, make them better.

Maine’s Demographic Spring — A Response to MHPC and Paul LePage.

J. Scott Moody, Executive Director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center and ideological chum of Paul LePage.

It wasn’t so long ago that Maine Heritage Policy Center’s new director, J. Scott Moody, was making headlines in New Hampshire for stating that same-sex marriage, if not repealed, would hasten New Hampshire’s passage into a cataclysmic event he calls “demographic winter.”

More recently (seemingly despite the fact that Maine repealed its own marriage equality law) Moody is warning that Maine will face a similar but worse demographic winter.

Maine’s demographic winter, according to Moody’s article on the MPHC website, is being brought on by an aging population and a steady out-migration of young people, at least from northern parts of the state.  The two trends, taken together, mean that Maine’s population is holding steady at best — and that it is getting older.  An older, retired population, as Moody explains, places more demands on government programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and social security, while at the same time contributing less to its tax base.

(Talk to just about anyone who lives north of Route 2 or east of Bangor and they will tell you the same thing, even without the degree in economics.)

This is the part of this post where you get to hold your breath in anticipation of Moody’s solution, now that he has you scared.  Hint #1:  As has been well-documented, MHPC and the LePage administration have a politically  incestuous relationship.  Hint #2: Moody has no problem manipulating facts to support his political agenda.*  Hint #3:  Moody’s plan to end the economic stagnation of Maine’s “winter” pays little attention to working class people of Maine.   Hint #4: Moody’s plan, while supposedly designed to lure in out-of-staters, would be highly favorable to wealthy Mainers.

Moody’s solution is based on convoluted logic and ends up (surprise!) serving the policies of the LePage administration. Essentially, Moody says that as the state ages, income tax revenues will shrink, so therefore we should eliminate those taxes entirely.

This single act, according to Moody’s logic, will bring young people in droves to Maine.  No matter that he is also forecasting a demographic winter for New Hampshire, a state that has no income tax.  No matter that the aging population will, as he states, require increased levels of social services and he has made no provision to pay for the increased level of services.

Moody aims to get our attention by warning of a demographic winter, yet he also states it is already here — in eastern and northern Maine, at least.  He admits that southern Maine is economically and demographically much healthier, yet doesn’t explain how the same tax  policies which he blames for the problems in northern Maine are not having the same negative effect on southern Maine.

Mitt Romney has stated and many modern Republicans agree that those in the ranks of the unemployed are beyond hope and undeserving of consideration — and Moody seems to be fully on board with this view.

Moody makes no mention of, and apparently has no plan for, the 50,000 plus Maine residents who are currently unemployed.  If, instead of focusing on luring in out-of-state residents, Maine could reduce its unemployment rate to the tune of  2,000 jobs a year for the next fifteen years, that would go a long way toward compensating for the aging population.

A commitment to reduce unemployment would likely have a cost, however.   A cost that conservatives such as Moody and LePage are unwilling to pay.  They would prefer to leave the “47%” to fend for itself, rather than make investments that could pay off in the long run.

After summer comes fall.  After fall comes winter — and after winter comes spring.  That Maine will face a demographic winter is a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to be nearly as bad as Moody makes it out to be.  Winter is also a time of opportunity.  The solution may be a simple one:  stimulating smart growth, maintaining social programs for those in need, and fostering meaningful employment among the people who are already here.

*In the published interview, Moody concludes that New Hampshire is losing population because it allows labor unions.  He also derides New Hampshire for devaluing marriage and making it too easy to get a divorce, at the same time ignoring the fact that New Hampshire has one of the lowest divorce rates in the country.  He also delves into sociology, stating that adoptive parents don’t love their children as much as biological parents.

Dominoes Don’t Make Choices: The Plan to Profitize our Schools, Part V

After reading our previous four posts on this topic, some still might not feel the situation merits much alarm.  The American public school is an institution that has stood for hundreds of years — and this might lead one to believe that it is assured of healthily surviving hundreds more.   The fact that virtual learning is being presented as a choice tends tamp down the level of concern even further.  Only those parents who wish to will withdraw their children from public school to attend virtual school, right?

After the first few dominoes fall, the others don’t have much choice, however.  In this post, I’ll argue that allowing the choice of virtual schools isn’t simply a matter of individual choice, but is also a choice that, once made by some, will reduce the choice available to others.  A choice that will ultimately threaten the survival of rural Maine schools — and in many cases of the rural communities themselves.

Contrary to what conservatives would have you believe, school choice is already alive and well in America. Private schools, religious schools, home schools, correspondence schools, online schools, prep schools, and charter schools are included among the available options.  The real debate isn’t about the “choice” of where students attend classes — but whether taxpayer funds should be withdrawn from the local school if the student decides to go elsewhere.

For an example of how one the choice of one family might affect many others, let’s look at the loss of 15 students from a 500-student RSU.   Approximately $150,000 in state and local funding is then removed from the local school budget.  As a result, the RSU cuts two teachers. ( A likely additional side effect is that the teachers move out of town and there are now two less taxpayers in town and 4 fewer students attending school.)  The school also loses its art program.  Ten more students withdraw to attend virtual school or  a nearby RSU that still does have an art program.  The RSU loses an additional $100,000 and cuts an additional two teachers.  The school is now in a death spiral of diminishing revenues, program cuts, and shrinking enrollment.  Due to economies of scale, even with cuts, per pupil expenditures are sure to climb.  At some point especially since many of their children may already be attending elsewhere, local taxpayers are likely to feel they can no longer support a public school — and the doors will be closed for the last time.

When a community loses its public school, it loses more than that.  It loses everything from school plays to softball games to places to hold bean suppers.  It loses a school song and a set of alumni and a set of traditions.  It loses a hub and gathering place for parents and children. It loses a set of teachers and their families who must now go elsewhere. It loses a place for public meetings. It loses a prime selling point for new families looking to move into the region.

The survival of Maine’s rural schools and communities are already threatened.  Given current economic trends, the financial pressures facing rural communities will likely get worse before they get better.   Now, more than ever, the people of Maine need to do the opposite of what LePage and Bowen would have us do.  The people of Maine need to stand up and protect our rural schools.

Some states have now mandated that students take at least one digital course as a condition of graduation. Maine would be wise to do the opposite — and pass legislation stating that every student has the right to receive 80 percent or more of their education from a real live teacher.


Kids as Pawns: The Plan to Privatize our Schools, Part IV

In his Sept. 7 radio address, LePage insists he is promoting virtual schools as a way to put students first and castigates the opposition for “debating the needs of adults and administrators over the needs of students.”

Is it just a coincidence that ALEC, the national conservative organization that LePage has repeatedly aligned himself with, is working to destroy teachers unions and dismantle the public education system?  Isn’t it disingenuous to hold that LePage’s “students-first” approach and ALEC’s war on public education could both settle on school choice, charter schools, and online learning — but for such different reasons?

If we were to truly put the needs of young people first, the solution would look very different from a virtual school — of that you can be sure.  Given that obesity, technology addiction, substance abuse, and lack of aspirations are four of the biggest problems facing young people today, it is difficult to see how replacing public school attendance with having kids sit at home in front of a computer keyboard will solve any of these problems.  In fact, it is likely to make them worse.

In our previous post, we argued that virtual schools do poorly when it comes to academics.  Schools do much more than feed the intellect, however.  Especially in this time of latch-key kids, school is where students gain a sense of values and a sense of belonging.  Students learn to work with their hands and not just their minds.  Students learn to collaborate; they learn to discuss and to present.  The move around between classes.  They communicate.  They get involved in conflicts and learn to resolve them.  They learn to understand the perspectives of students very different from themselves. In short, they learn how to function citizens in a messy thing called democracy.

Kids are social creatures who want to move, create, and interact.  Nothing on a computer screen can replace the encouraging smile of a teacher or the hug of a classmate.  Nothing on a computer screen can help our kids develop heart.

The public school, like democracy itself, is an imperfect institution — but like democracy it is also far better than the alternative.  When it comes to education, right now, the public school is the best thing we’ve got.

Continue Reading:  The Plan to Profitize Our Schools, Part V

It’s Academic, but Not Really: The Plan to Profitize our Schools, Part III.

“Actual,” “authentic,” and “real,” are listed by as antonyms of the word, virtual.  Those still on the fence about virtual schools would do well to keep in mind that virtual schools are neither actual, authentic, nor real.

Virtual schools don’t have gymnasiums, performing art centers, art rooms, or science labs.  They don’t have counselors or cafeterias or co-curricular activities.  They offer only one thing — academics.  The trouble is that even in that area, they don’t do well at all.

When it comes to academics, the track record of virtual schools is not good. As Colin Woodard documents in “Studies: Existing full-time virtual schools earn poor grades,” students at virtual schools do poorly compared to their counterparts in public schools in terms of everything from graduation rates to math and reading.

An extensive New York Times study of K12, one of the largest online learning corporations, found that at one K12 virtual school, “Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.”

Unfortunately, the times found this kind of academic performance was fairly typical of K12-affiliated charter schools.

The TImes article goes on to state: “A look at the company’s operations, based on interviews and a review of school finances and performance records, raises serious questions about whether K12 schools — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed . . . Instead, a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.”

Online courses are readily available at places like and , and since these courses are both excellent and available for free, it is unclear to us why Maine would want to divert money away from public schools and toward corporations with such dubious reputations as K12.

It would lead one to believe that maybe it’s not about the academics after all.

Continue Reading:  The Plan to Profitize Our Schools, Part IV

It’s About the Money: The Plan to Profitize Our Schools, Part II

For online learning companies such as K12 and Connections Learning, both of whom are poised to dip deeply into Maine education funds to the tune of $6,500 per student — it is definitely about the money.  For politicians like Paul LePage, who has already benefited in the form of campaign contributions, it is very much about the money.

LePage and Bowen will try to sell virtual schools to us under the guise of “choice,” but it’s still about the money.   For them it is about money “saved,” from the state education budget, which can augment the Tea Party goal of “downsizing” government.

If money were not an issue, there would be less to object to. The point is that Maine public schools are already underfunded. How then does it make sense to create a parallel system that will bleed money from the original system without reducing its costs?

Proponents of virtual schools might tout the $6,500 per pupil cost charged by online learning companies versus the $10,000 plus per student pupil incurred by students attending Maine public schools — a potential savings of $3,500 per student.

These numbers don’t tell the whole story, however.  A district that loses ten students to virtual schools still operates the same number of buses, employs the same number of teachers, and heats the same number of classrooms.  So unless the school itself is closed, where are the savings?

Then, there’s more.  According to the provided figures, a total virtual school enrollment of 4,000 students would cost the state $26 million.   This money would be going to out-of-state corporations and would be exempt from state income tax.  As explained above, this may not allow a significant reduction of teachers, but even if the state could cut 400 teachers (Maine currently has a 10:1 student to teacher ratio), the savings on salaries would be less than $20 million.  In this scenario, even after cutting 400 teachers, the state cost for education would actually increase by more than $6 million.

And then it gets worse.  Four hundred teachers are now unemployed, leading to a loss of  $15 – 20 million from the state economy.  If you include the multiplier effects gained from those teachers spending a significant portion of their salaries in Maine, the number is likely closer to $25 million.  Then add in the amount the state will lose in income, sales, and property taxes — and the number would likely balloon above $30 million.

Is this really a good time for Maine to be outsourcing jobs?

As we will outline tomorrow, the LePage plan doesn’t make any kind of educational sense, and it doesn’t make any kind of economic sense either.

(Part two of a five part series on the dangers of allowing online learning companies to gain a foothold in Maine.  For more information, please see Colin Woodard’s recent article in the Portland Press Herald and the recent Portland Press Herald editorial.)

 Continue Reading — The Plan to Profitize our Schools:  Part III

The LePage/Bowen/Bush/Koch Brothers Plan to Profitize Our Schools: 5 Dangers in 5 Days.

I:  The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.  The number one danger of the LePage/Bowen/Bush/Koch Brothers plan to privatize and profitize our schools is that the threat this plan represents will not be recognized soon enough by the people of Maine.

Pieces of the plan have arrived already, under the guise of school choice, the charter school bill, and LePage’s digital learning initiative.  Separately, these pieces look innocuous enough, but when pieced together, as Colin Woodard shows in his recent report, “The Profit Motive Behind Virtual Schools in Maine,” these initiatives can be recognized for what they are — back doors through which corporations can tap into public funds.  Back doors that will make it more difficult for already-challenged brick-and-mortar public schools to remain open.  Back doors that will allow in changes that will tear at the fabric of rural communities in Maine.

Paul LePage and Stephen Bowen are ready to sign on with Jeb Bush, the Koch Brothers, and the Foundation for Excellence.  Are we?

Considering the profound changes that virtual schools may bring not only to the lives of our children but to our society as a whole, we can be thankful that the charter schools panel defied LePage by refusing to be rushed into a decision on proposals from Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy, which together would have removed 4,000 students (and the corresponding state and local funding) from Maine schools and enrolled them in virtual schools, with the tuition money going to out-of-state corporations.

It is only a matter of time, however, before the applications of these two virtual charter schools are re-submitted.  Hopefully, by the time that occurs, the people of Maine and the members of the charter committee will be ready to give them a resounding “no.”

Over the next four days, this blog will outline other concerns with virtual schools, including likely impacts on Maine students and Maine communities.

In the meantime, the Woodard article (also linked above) is a must-read for anyone wanting to know more about the issue.

 Continue Reading:  The Plan to Profitize Our Schools Part II

Contrary to Claims, Couch Sitting Not Cause of Maine’s Economic Malaise

Chart from Joel Johnson, “Working Harder, Falling Farther Behind,” on the MECEP blog, “Line Items.”

Reflections for Labor Day:  Maine families work 500 more hours than they did 30 years ago, according to Joel Johnson at the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

Which supports what we knew all along.  Maine people are hard workers. Most of us work very hard.  Many of us are working harder than ever — and don’t have much to show for it.

This doesn’t fit the Republican narrative, however.  The narrative that holds that if you are poor or struggling to get by, it is your own fault. (If you are wealthy or want to be wealthy and want to avoid having any social responsibility, this narrative justifies your approach).

As the chart (above) shows, during the last 30 years, the real wages of lower and middle income wage earners have remained essentially flat.  Yet, as Johnson states, and as we know all too well, the costs of housing, health care, and education have all increased dramatically.

Given the facts above, one would think that boosting the standard of living of the working poor would be a reasonable priority.  However, as we also know all too well, our governor  has instead chosen to focus on the small percentage of people who take advantage of the social safety net rather than the majority of people who are working very hard to get by and still don’t have enough.

1.000 people are thirsty, and Paul LePage wants us all to focus on the one person who took two bottles of free water when he was supposed to take only one.