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Education’s newest ‘innovation’ in poor schools is just moving chairs on the Titanic

It didn’t work in Louisiana, Tennessee, or Michigan – taking local control from low-performing school districts and creating special “turnaround” districts operated by charter companies. Yet North Carolina has assigned Robeson County’s Southside-Ashpole Elementary School as the first to be included in the state’s new Innovative School District (ISD), a concept that is faltering in Louisiana’s Recovery School District, Tennessee’s Achievement School District, and Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority.

The vast majority of students at Southside-Ashpole are African-American or American Indian and 97 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Their state test scores reflect this – labeling the school as “failing” for the past four years.

Given the choice by the state between closing the school or turning over management to the ISD, the school board favors keeping the school open.

Brenda Fairley-Ferebee, a Robeson County school board member, told WUNC that “we had tried everything, and it’s not working. We moved principals in to the school, we moved principals out. We moved teachers in, we moved teachers out.”

That’s exactly what doesn’t work anywhere, but especially in high-poverty schools – the proverbial rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic as the iceberg of poverty bashes in the hull.

Too many studies validate what educators have said since the beginning of the school reform movement: that money matters first and foremost. Children from families with adequate financial resources learn more, faster and better than children who live in poverty. Poor children suffer from physical and emotional traumas – poor health, food insecurity, homelessness – that sap their ability to learn, and no shuffling of teachers or principals in or out of their schools does anything to fix that.

Last week, Education Week published its Quality Counts report, with sections on what makes high-achieving schools so successful and low-achieving schools not. Money turns out to be the secret sauce to test scores, to grades on schools, to student achievement. Low-performing school systems are those with high numbers of poor students, few opportunities for preschool education and limited funding for K-12 schools.

In North Carolina, that inequity is shocking. The study from the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education advocacy group, found that the 10 highest-spending counties spent on average $3,103 per student compared with $739 by the 10 lowest-spending counties.

Nationally, students have been hit hard by funding decisions made during the recession. Kirabo Jackson, Cora Wigger and Heyu Xiong of Northwestern University published an analysis last week showing that as states cut funding during the economic recession 10 years ago, test scores and graduation rates dropped.

The researchers found that states hit hardest by loss of funding showed the biggest declines in student tests scores and graduation rates. Their analysis is supported by the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, which names both the recession cuts and the lack of adequate supplemental funding to high-poverty districts as reasons for the recent drop in student achievement. Even now, 29 states are spending less per student than before 2008.

So good luck to Southside-Ashpole Elementary, but unless ISD makes poverty a focus of its efforts, the iceberg will sink that ship.

Editor’s Note: This article originally published in the Charlotte Observer. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Kay McSpadden

Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C.