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Quick Take: No, Poverty Isn’t Destiny…Or An Excuse John Bel Edwards argues "poverty trumps education." He's wrong.

When the Democratic candidate for Governor, John Bel Edwards, met with the Editorial Board of Lafayette’s Daily Advertiser on Tuesday to explain how “things would be different in an Edwards administration,” the two-term State Representative had a lot to say about the state of public education in Louisiana.

Some of the points he made were commendable, like his support for a stable higher education funding model that would avoid the fiscal nightmare our state’s public universities suffered through earlier this spring. However, as we’ve seen recently, when the subject turned to K-12 education, Edwards – who believes he’s “the engineer who can put the engine back on the tracks” – instead went off the rails. For example, The Advertiser reported:

“Edwards said he embraces the state’s push for higher standards for K-12 education, but not the process the state has chosen to pursue them. He said he’s for accountability, but believes letter grades are unfair to schools with high percentages of impoverished children. Teachers are too often compelled to teach to the test, he said, and who can blame them? Their jobs depend on it.”

While Edwards’ equivocal positions on high academic standards and accountability pose a problem, I was more disappointed that he proceeded to trot out the old “poverty trumps education” argument, one of the teachers unions’ favorite talking points:

“For example, he said, his own son’s school, where his wife teaches music, drew an ‘F’ letter grade from the state, but he said poverty, not teachers, was what undermined that public school. Teachers there were ‘fine,’ he said, but most of the students came from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

In effect, Edwards is saying we we should lower our expectations for certain children just because they happen to come from poor families.

Let’s examine John Bel Edwards’ statement for a moment. It’s true that Amite Elementary Magnet School, where his wife Donna worked until recently, does serve a high proportion of low-income students. In 2014, over 95% of the school’s students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. On the other hand, Amite Elementary received a “D” in 2013-14 (S.Y. 2014-15 haven’t been issued yet) and a School Performance Score (SPS) of 54.7 (out of 150) – i.e., the school is not designated as failing as Edwards claims.

However, the more important question is whether a “D” grade and a SPS of 54.7 is the most we should expect from a school where the students are nearly all low-income. To test that, I decided to look at 2014 data of New Orleans public schools where 95% of students were free/reduced lunch eligible. Here’s what I found:

LEASchool%FRPL2014 Grade2014 SPS 2013 Grade2013 SPS
RSDKIPP Central City Academy>95%B95.2B96.9
OPSBMary Bethune Elementary >95%B93.7B88.1
OPSBMahalia Jackson Elementary School>95%B93.7B88.1
RSDMartin Behrman Elementary School>95%B93.3B92.1
OPSBRobert Russa Moton Charter School>95%B86.7D61.9
RSDEsperanza Charter School>95%B85.6C75.3
RSDLagniappe Academy of New Orleans>95%C82.3B85
RSDLafayette Academy>95%C81.7C79.7
RSDReNew SciTech Academy at Laurel>95%C81.6C75
RSDArthur Ashe Charter School>95%C81.2B90.2
RSDJames M. Singleton Charter School>95%C80.8D56.9
RSDAkili Academy of New Orleans>95%C80C71.6
RSDKIPP Central City Primary>95%C78C75.2
RSDLangston Hughes Charter Academy>95%C77.6C81.3
RSDEdgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence>95%C75.9D64.1
RSDSamuel J. Green Charter School>95%C74C78.4
RSDSophie B. Wright Learning Academy>95%C73.9B88.5
RSDCohen College Prep>95%C72.9D63.5
RSDMary D. Coghill Charter School>95%C69.7NANA
RSDNelson Elementary School>95%D67.3C79.5
RSDMcDonogh City Park Academy>95%D66.4C77.6
RSDLawrence D. Crocker College Prep>95%T66.1NANA
RSDFannie C. Williams Charter School>95%D64.8T75.7
RSDMcDonogh #32 Elementary School>95%D64.4C70.9
RSDHarriet Tubman Charter School>95%D63T72.7
RSDReNew Dolores T. Aaron Elementary>95%D62.5T64.4
RSDArise Academy>95%D58.3C72.5
RSDMcDonogh 42 Charter School>95%T58.3T39.4
RSDWilliam J. Fischer Elementary School>95%D56.8C76
RSDReNew Schaumburg Elementary>95%T55.7NANA
RSDReNew Cultural Arts Academy at Live Oak>95%D55D60.1
TangipahoaAmite Elementary Magnet School>95%D54.7F49.6

In short, there were 31 public schools in New Orleans that scored higher than Amite Elementary in 2014, even though nearly all of their kids were low-income. What’s more, some schools in New Orleans, like Mary Bethune Elementary, are knocking the cover off the ball. Nearly 80% of Bethune students were performing at or above grade level in 2014, as opposed to only 46% of students at Amite Elementary.

Schools like Mary Bethune refute the "poverty trumps education" argument
Schools like Mary Bethune refute the “poverty trumps education” argument

Now, I’m not raising these facts to denigrate the hard work of Donna Edwards or her former colleagues at Amite Elementary Magnet School. I’m also not saying that poverty doesn’t present considerable challenges for educators – as a former teacher in New Orleans’ public schools, I’ve faced those very challenges.

Nevertheless, it’s clear there are many public schools in Louisiana’s low-income communities where students are beating John Bel Edwards’ low expectations hands down. We live in a state with one of the highest levels of child poverty in the country and we can’t allow our politicians to simply those write those kids off because it’s politically expedient.

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.


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  1. You make lots of suppositions – that the conditions in Amite are the same as in your comparative schools, that the neighborhoods that are doing better have the same conditions as Amite, that school systems have the same level of outreach to the communities. Mostly, you are taking one sentence from J. B. Edwards’ comments and extrapolating a position that he feels it is impossible to overcome poverty in school. Worse, that he is using it as an excuse. Using your metrics, I do not see a plan for success in Louisiana. What I see is a plan that can only produce six schools with a B rating out of 26 examples, a plan that produces more D and T ratings than C ratings. If anything, your metrics prove your assumption about J. B. Edwards’ comment – your sample shows that more schools in disadvantaged communities are producing D ratings than C ratings and more C ratings than B ratings.

    • No, I’m not making lots of suppositions. I’m pointing out the fact that Edwards has embraced the teachers union talking point that “poverty trumps education.” He has said it repeatedly (here’s another example: and the subtext of that talking point is “you can’t hold schools accountable,” which is nonsense. (An aside: if you actually count the number of C-rated schools, there are more C-rated schools than D-rated & T-rated schools – so much for that part of your argument).

      You want to know what the difference is between a failing school and a C or B rated school? Dozens of children’s lives on a trajectory toward a better life. If that doesn’t matter to you, I guess you wouldn’t see a plan, but it’s important to me.

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