Photo by Norman Y. Lono
By Amanda Litvinov
Jo Anne Norris, a school counselor serving both the elementary school and the junior/senior high school in Columbia, Pennsylvania, is concerned about what she sees in a growing number of students since the recession hit their population-10,000 town: “They’re anxious and distracted and not prepared for school,” she said.
The undone homework, the uptick in discipline problems and greater numbers of students unprepared for tests have so frustrated the teaching staff, Norris sometimes has to remind her colleagues that unspoken financial problems at home are often a root cause.
“We don’t know exactly what’s going on in a child’s life when they leave this building, and we can’t control that,” said Norris. “But if that child doesn’t have stability and doesn’t know where their next meal is going to come from, homework just isn’t at the top of the priority list.”
Both the students and the teachers have less support at school. When Norris lists the educators who have been cut from her small district, the river of names flows like the nearby Susquehanna. Library assistants, instructional assistants, special education and alternative education assistants, teachers of art, business, technology, and family and consumer science. All lost to devastating budget cuts threatening students’ educations across the state.
And yet. A hundred miles away in Washington, D.C., corporate lobbyists are working their voodoo on lawmakers to protect unfair corporate tax laws that help create this double whammy for students, who suffer the economic consequences both at school and at home.
Thanks to the laws they influenced and the loopholes they created, some of the nation’s most powerful corporations are sitting on record profits while middle class worker incomes remain stagnant. And the deficits caused by corporate offenders who don’t pay their fair share in federal and state income taxes derail budgets, drain school resources and kill educator jobs. Both take a toll on the most innocent victims of all: the nation’s children.
The number of kids living in high poverty communities surged 25 percent in the past ten years according to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Roughly 75 percent of those 8 million children have at least one parent in the workforce—but the jobs they have don’t provide enough pay and benefits to keep those families far from peril. Grab a hankie before you read this one: Child homelessness in America grew 38 percent following the manmade disaster known as the Great Recession, says a report from the National Center on Family Homelessness.
Children living in concentrated poverty are “more likely to experience harmful levels of stress and severe behavioral and emotional problems than children overall,” says the Casey report. They are also less likely to perform well in school and more likely to drop out, undermining their income potential for the rest of their lives.
Educators see the children behind those statistics every day. Dorothy Runnels, a cafeteria employee at Crump Elementary in Memphis, says she is glad her school is part of a pilot program called Breakfast in the Classroom (the NEA Health Information Network is a partner), which helps communities with widespread poverty ensure that all students start the day with a healthy meal. “I guarantee you without this program some of them wouldn’t end up getting breakfast at all,” Runnels said.
What’s happening to children and families can be alleviated by closing corporate tax loopholes and using a portion of those funds to invest in education. Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) revealed that the 280 most profitable U.S. corporations got tax subsidies of nearly $224 billion between 2008-2010. “That’s the money we need to invest in schools, protect Medicare, create jobs, do all those things for the social good that we can’t do now,” said CTJ Director Robert McIntyre.
Here’s something to keep in mind the next time a lawmaker claims that the only way to balance the budget is to cut programs that benefit working families and students. Twelve corporations paid an effective tax rate of negative 1.4 percent on $175 billion in profits in the same timeframe. A clear result of this perfectly legal tax avoidance is that our national investment in public education as a share of gross domestic product has fallen since the 1970s, at a time when demands on school systems are increasing (see sources).
It’s time we demand that lawmakers restore balance to our federal corporate income tax laws, paving the way for states to do the same. You can help us make the case by sharing your stories—tell us what you’re seeing in your schools in the comments section below this article.
“If we don’t, the only possible result is even further cuts in public services, including education, Social Security, Medicare, transportation—things that affect us every day,” said McIntyre.
In the meantime, educators will go on advocating for kids in any way they can, which for Jo Anne Morris has meant making more mental health referrals for students.
“Sometimes it depends on how resilient the kids are,” she says. “If poverty is what they’ve always known, they might not be feeling much different now. But for kids whose families were not struggling before, the past few years have been hard and I’ve been seeing more and more of them.”
- Are you seeing more signs of financial hardship among your students? What has this meant for your schools? Please share your story below.
- Sign up to receive weekly EdVotes emails. Check back next week to learn more about how unfair corporate tax loopholes hurt public schools and the middle class.
Sources: NEA Research analysis of education expenditure data from National Center for Education Statistics; GDP data from US Census, Statistical Abstract, 2011. Data are adjusted using Bureau of Economic Analysis GDP and state and local government deflators.