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Sen. John Kuehn

Sen. John Kuehn

District 38

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The common justification for poor academic proficiency and low rates of college readiness among graduates of Nebraska high schools is poverty. At first look, the claim makes intuitive sense. Children who come from poor homes without adequate food, medical care, and housing are not able to learn during the school day. They experience stress other children do not. There is no doubt that children who come from families in poverty face greater challenges in reaching academic proficiency.

However, the claim that poverty is the primary reason for Nebraska high school students’ poor levels of college readiness quickly falls apart under even basic scrutiny. Using U.S. Census Bureau figures, the poverty rate for school aged children 5-17 in Nebraska is 13%. However, three times that many graduates, 39%, don’t reach any of the college readiness benchmarks established by the ACT. Clearly, poverty does not explain 2 out of 3 of the students who fail to meet a single proficiency benchmark.

Moreover, the “evidence” used to justify the claim, such as a graph produced by the Nebraska Department of Education, compares rates of lower income students in a school to average ACT composite scores in the same school. It does not link student socioeconomic status to their individual performance. They are not actually demonstrating that poor kids are less prepared, but rather showing that schools with more poor students, on average, tend to graduate students with poorer average composite scores. That data tells us about schools, not kids.

A numerical trick used to justify the poverty claim is to use a non-equivalent metric other than income-based poverty as a substitution.  In Nebraska, the NDE uses “free/reduced school lunches” as the variable for poverty. Children from families below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free school meals. Schools are paid $3.31 per child for lunch and $1.79 to provide breakfast. That group alone encompasses more than just children who live below the poverty level, but would be a reasonable measure of poverty.

However, the statistic used by NDE is lumped together with students who also receive reduced price school meals, being required to pay the school only $0.30 per meal.  To qualify, the family can make between 130-185% of poverty. A single parent with two children who makes $19 per hour at their job would qualify. A family of six, like I grew up in, making $62,000 per year, above the Nebraska median household income of $59,000, would qualify for reduced price school meals. The Nebraska Department of Education includes those children in their “poverty” statistic. Lumping the two groups together and not providing separated data at the district or state level is an attempt to inflate the “poverty” numbers and perpetuate the excuse.

The argument also ignores the significant resources provided to children in poverty to overcome the lack of family income. Nutritionally, a child in poverty receives free breakfast and lunch at school. In addition, the average low income Nebraska household with children receives $395 per month to buy food through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That does not include additional food benefits through WIC, the Women Infants and Children program.

The impacts of poverty on children and their ability to learn are addressed through multiple additional programs. The average child on Medicaid in Nebraska receives $3400 in health care benefits annually. Furthermore, over 11,000 school age children from low income families receive an average annual subsidy of $3,200 to pay for child care. Federal rental assistance is paid to 27,000 low income Nebraska households for housing, and another 43,000 Nebraska households receive LIHEAP money for their utilities. Nutrition, medical care, child care, and housing assistance are all provided to improve the stability of the home for poor kids and improve their ability to be academically successful.

Also, the Nebraska school equalization aid funding formula, TEEOSA, provides schools districts increased state-aid per student based on the proportion of students in poverty. These additional direct instructional resources are to help children from low income families overcome the hurdles presented by their home life.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the poverty excuse for widespread academic failures in the state’s education system persists, perpetuated at even the highest levels of the education bureaucracy in Nebraska. It is convenient, as it avoids anyone’s accountability for failure to teach our kids. If statistics are manipulated and misrepresented cleverly, the concept appears to make sense.

Dismissing the academic ability of an entire population of children based purely on their socioeconomic status is unbridled discrimination. Poor children can learn. Two out of three Nebraska graduates who do not meet any of the ACT benchmarks are not in poverty. We must rethink education in Nebraska.

Sen. John Kuehn

District 38
Room #12th Floor
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2732
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