Kids at school
Emily Stahly

As part of the War on Poverty, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration pushed for comprehensive education legislation that became known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. When signing the bill into law in 1965, Johnson stated, “By passing this bill, we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than five million educationally deprived children.”

But has education policy in the last 50 years closed that gap? Not even close. Back in the 1970s, students from poor households were as much as three to four years of schooling behind their wealthier peers. Fast forward to 2015, and that gap has virtually stayed the same despite pouring billions of dollars into the education system. Isn’t it time for a new approach—shouldn’t we start giving parents the power to control education dollars?

According to a recent study, there has been a persistent gap in academic achievement between low-income and high-income students for decades. What’s more, student performance overall hasn’t gotten better; any gains seen in earlier grades dissipate by the age of 17 when students are preparing to go to college or enter the workforce

This is despite numerous local, state, and national efforts to provide quality education for low-income kids. In the last 50 years, we have provided services to students with disabilities, evened out school funding between rich and poor districts, instituted a number of accountability systems (Missouri’s accountability system is in its sixth iteration since 1991), and increased funding overall. In fact, the report notes, “Overall school funding increased dramatically on a per-student basis, quadrupling in real dollars between 1960 and 2015.”

To show just how bad the achievement gap between high- and low-income students is in Missouri, check out the data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Beginning with 2005, the data points represent the percentage of 8th grade students in Missouri who were at or above grade level in math and reading, separated by eligibility for the National School Lunch Program (which is for families with incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty line).

8th grade math proficiency

8th grade reading proficiency

For low-income 8th-graders, only 16 percent were proficient or advanced in math in 2017. The number for reading is hardly better, with only 22 percent of students considered proficient or advanced. Compare that to students who were not eligible for the National School Lunch Program: 42 percent of these kids were at least proficient in math and 47 percent were proficient or advanced in reading. And the gap in both subjects has gotten larger since 2005.

What are the consequences of this failure? As I discuss in my two recent essays, “Intergenerational Poverty in Missouri” and “Creating Pathways for Self-Sufficiency,” quality education and the ability to move up the economic ladder are closely linked. How can Missouri expect to break cycles of poverty if it can’t even educate low-income students well?

Meanwhile, charter schools and private school choice programs are providing opportunities unmatched by many traditional public schools. Graduates from IDEA Public Schools, a charter school network founded in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley in Texas, have a 100 percent college acceptance rate and half of the class of 2012 acquired a bachelor’s degree within six years after enrolling in college. In Florida, tax-credit scholarship recipients have higher college-going and degree completion rates, and charter school students score higher on tests than students in traditional public school students.

So where do we go from here? Should we be satisfied with reforms that just tinker around the edges of our education system and increase spending indefinitely for programs that are failing? Or should we allow more competition and innovation through choice that will make schools more responsive to families of all economic backgrounds? Based on the failure of the education bureaucracy to close the gap in the last 50 years, it seems Missouri’s best option is to start trusting parents. 


About the Author

Emily Stahly

Emily Stahly is an analyst at the Show-Me Institute. She earned her B.A. in politics from Hillsdale College in Michigan and is researching education with the Show-Me Institute.