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Commentary...Poverty and Education...Judith Sandalow

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The District’s mayoral candidates are talking about their plans to improve schools. According to commentator Judith Sandalow, voters who care about education reform should also ask mayoral candidates what they will do to address our high rate of poverty.

Sandalow is Executive Director of Children’s Law Center.

What do you think? Tell us at conversation.wamu.org, Click on Commentary Forum.


Mayor Adrian Fenty’s re-election campaign calls “high quality public education” a “hallmark of his first term.” His top challenger, D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray, says he “will make our children’s education the number one priority of his administration.”

As an advocate for children and a long-time D.C. resident, I agree that improving public education is critical to the city’s future. But I also see the crushing effects of poverty in the District every day, and I know that addressing the troubles poor children bring with them to school in the morning are as important to their educational success as having capable teachers and a nicely renovated school.

I’m talking about a 6th grade boy who lives with his family in a car, because they are homeless. Even the best teacher can’t overcome his lack of a good night’s sleep, which makes paying attention in class for six hours a day a major challenge.

Then there’s the 2nd grade girl whose asthma persistently flares up due to the rat feces in her public housing unit. She averages two nights a week in the hospital emergency room. No matter how impressive the public school is in her neighborhood, she’s too sick and tired to learn well.

Nationally, poor children are two times as likely to repeat a grade, three times more likely to be expelled from school and three and a half times more likely to drop out of school. In fact, poor children have lower math and reading scores than more affluent children in the same classroom, with the same teachers, in the same school facilities.

As D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee says, we cannot use D.C.’s high poverty rate as an excuse for the inadequate performance of D.C.’s public schools. But we also cannot ignore that D.C. and every large urban school system struggles with low educational outcomes in large part, because poverty weakens families and harms a child’s health. The school performance of low-income children reflects their higher rates of malnutrition and victimization from abuse and violence.

That’s why I and many others are asking candidates running for office this year to present their ideas about how to defeat poverty and improve the chances that kids can succeed in school.

Children’s Law Center, which believes in giving every child a solid foundation of family, health and education, is part of Defeat Poverty D.C., a coalition of organizations and residents working to bring greater focus during the 2010 election season and beyond to the damaging effects of poverty on our entire city.

Mayor Fenty and Chairman Gray: What will you to do make work pay for the one-third of D.C. families that are working but poor? What will you do to make work possible for the thousands of parents who lack critical job skills and are not able to give their children the support they need? What will you do… Mayor Fenty and Chairman Gray… to make basic needs affordable, so that all children can grow up healthy and safe?

And for those of you running to fill Chairman Gray’s seat and to other council races: What will you do for the in three children living in poverty in our city? What will you do for the two in five children who are at risk of hunger? What will you do about the 50,000 families that spend more than half their income for housing?

If you want answers to these questions. Join us. Go to defeatpovertydc.org. Join the campaign and ask our mayoral and D.C. council candidates how they plan to defeat poverty. When ending poverty is discussed by candidates, voters and the media as often as improving our school system, then I believe we will be on a path to providing all D.C. children a good education.

I’m Judith Sandalow.


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