For the past few years, debates have raged in the North Carolina General Assembly over how best to reform a flagging education system. Most of the reforms proposed have focused on the system itself — making it easier to fire bad teachers, adjusting the curricula, paying teachers more, giving some kids a chance to go to private schools with public money. While some of these proposals hold greater promise than others for improving children’s chances, little attention has been paid to the biggest problem that confronts the North Carolina public school system: child poverty.
Child poverty is one of the strongest predictors of poor educational performance; studies have demonstrated that children who live in households below the federal poverty line face significantly different life chances than their wealthier counterparts, from stunted cognitive development to poorer physical and mental health. Food insecurity, which correlates with income, is another predictor of failing health and educational difficulties.
“We’ll use every school reform tool in the arsenal except the one the entire world knows matters most: lifting kids from debilitating hardship,” UNC professor Gene Nichol wrote in The News & Observer in January 2014. “As if a child can learn effectively when she is hungry, sick, ill-clad, unsupported, unchallenged and unprepared.” There are quite a substantial number of children in North Carolina who are striving to overcome the obstacles that poverty places before them. At the same time, the legislature is reducing state programs that aim to help prop up impoverished families and support the development of low-income children.
Scalawag looks at the State of the Child in North Carolina, by the numbers.