Commentary | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

Lessons—Inner-City Nomad – Route to Low Grades

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Inner-City Nomad: Route to Low Grades

By Richard Rothstein

Nearly everyone has an idea for raising student achievement in inner cities. Experts variously call for smaller classes, paying urban teachers a bonus, demanding higher standards or offering private vouchers. But some solutions rest where people have not been looking: outside school.

To see why, consider Hyde Park Elementary School in Los Angeles. Few schools have lower scores. Only 10 percent of its fourth graders test at the national median in reading. In math, only 5 percent do so.

Hyde Park students, evenly split between blacks and Hispanics, are almost all poor. But this cannot entirely explain their low scores — other schools with poor children do better. What marks Hyde Park is student transiency.

The school has an array of programs, like after-school tutoring, to improve achievement. There is also an adult mentor group, family counseling, and medical and mental health services. 

But many students came to the school too recently for its services to make much difference. Hyde Park’s test scores include those of many students it has not had the chance to teach. Of children enrolled in the fall, only two-thirds typically remain through spring. Only one-third of those enrolled some time in the year were present the entire time.

Such instability is not unique. The General Accounting Office reported in 1994 that 30 percent of children from families earning less than $10,000 a year had attended at least three schools by third grade. From families earning $10,000 to $25,000, 20 percent had been to that many. Their teachers must frequently reorganize classrooms and review old lessons. With continuity lost, stable students also suffer.

Rather than trying (and failing) to compensate with extra school programs, why not attack excessive mobility head-on? One cause is no mystery: the dearth of affordable housing. Many families double-up with relatives, moving on when stress becomes too great. Others fall behind in rent and are evicted, resettling in other school zones.

Federal guidelines say families should spend only 30 percent of income on shelter, if resources are to remain for other needs. Forced to spend more, poor families often raid food budgets to pay rent. Children then suffer nutritionally, compounding cognitive problems. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington research group, 80 percent of working poor families with children spent more than 30 percent of income on housing in 1995. Nearly half of these spent more than 50 percent.

President Clinton plans to ask Congress to expand the federal rent subsidy program to cover 120,000 additional low-income families. Although Mr. Clinton is not presenting this as an education initiative, such housing programs could actually have a big effect on student learning — if they help reduce the transiency of children whose families cannot otherwise afford stable living places.

Rental aid, called Section 8 vouchers, is one way to help. Nonprofit groups also help by building affordable units financed by tax-free private investments and federal, state, and local subsidies.

An example is West Park apartments, down the street from Hyde Park Elementary. This 60-unit complex was erected with public money and then sold to a nonprofit manager. But West Park alone barely dents the neighborhood’s rental crisis.

State and federal housing programs are terribly underfinanced. Only one-fourth of working poor families receive any federal housing assistance. In Los Angeles, Section 8 waiting lists are so long that no new applications are accepted. Hyde Park’s principal, Brenda Rogers, says she often hears parents bemoan their inability to obtain vouchers.

The President’s proposal would add $690 million a year to Section 8.But an added $3 billion is needed to cover all working families with children who spend more than 50 percent of income for rent.

This is not a lot of money compared with school money now intended to improve scores of poor (and often mobile) students. Title I (federal aid to schools with poor children) now costs nearly $10 billion a year. Most states supplement this with extra compensatory money. This spending might be less needed if poor children had stable residences with some quiet space for homework. They could then remain in the same classrooms long enough to make a difference.

Improving academics is not the only reason to subsidize housing for the working poor. Yet to raise scores, people usually think only of school reform, forgetting that dollars spent elsewhere might help. By focusing only on schools, government may waste money trying to fix academic problems that it could have prevented in the first place at less expense.

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