Imagine that you're broke, no money to your name, nothing in your pockets but a handful of nickels and dimes. Imagine what it would be like to walk in your front door and not know for sure whether there was any food in the refrigerator. Or whether you'd even be sleeping there tonight. Imagine not having a coat that fits when it gets cold, or shoes to keep your feet dry when it rains.
Politicians at all levels of government talk about the need for inner-city schools to pull up their scores on achievement tests in the same way they might tell some sullen teen-ager to pull up his pants.
Now try imagining what it's like putting up with all these problems and being in third grade. Or sixth grade. Or 10th grade. You show up for school and have to take the ISTEP test.
Poverty equals everyday life for most of the kids enrolled in IPS, the Indianapolis Public Schools. In Indiana the law requires that students who live below the poverty line get their textbooks free of charge. There are 39,000 kids in IPS and 80 percent of them receive free textbooks. According to IPS, over 70 percent of the kids enrolled come from a single-parent home; 11 percent do not live with any family members, are in foster care, the Guardian's Home or make their address the juvenile detention center. Only 15 percent of the kids in IPS live with both parents.
Meanwhile, politicians at all levels of government talk about the need for inner-city schools to pull up their scores on achievement tests in the same way they might tell some sullen teen-ager to pull up his pants. These politicians seem to assume that this is simply a matter of will. That if everybody - teachers, principals, kids and parents - gets with the program, test scores will climb, students will succeed and there will be peace in our concrete canyons.
But most politicians know better. They know that academics stopped being Job No. 1 for most inner-city schools years ago. The smarter ones know that most of what goes on in these schools is about coping with the effects of poverty on children's bodies and minds.
The problem is that politicians and those of us who elect them are allergic to poverty. Or, to put it more plainly, we don't like poor people. They give us the creeps. Analysis would probably show there are a lot of reasons for this, but never mind. The point is that if we wanted to do something about poverty, at least so that kids who are growing up poor would have a chance for a better deal in school, we would use the vast resources at our disposal to make a difference.
Maybe we think that's impossible. Maybe we think these kids deserve the lives they've been born into. In any event, we dance around the issue.
First, in IPS, we created magnet programs. The magnets have enabled the kids with families who have the time, energy, education and concern to make sure their kids get a good education. Magnet schools separate the kids in IPS who have future expectations from the kids whose expectations have been buried. Magnets, though, haven't kept most middle-class parents from moving out of IPS. So we now have charter schools, which provide parents who care about where their kids are educated with another way of separating themselves from the larger system's social stress.
Teachers in IPS are trying to help too many kids who come to class hungry, sleep-deprived, neglected and angry. That's a full-time job. Rather than dealing with the causes of these conditions, though, our politicians want higher scores on academic achievement tests. As if these kids can test their way out of being poor.
And now, adding injury to insult, the Indiana House of Representatives has proposed a state budget for the next two years that will cut funding to IPS by a total of $17.9 million. These cuts may make it necessary to eliminate more than 200 teachers, resulting in larger class sizes. This doesn't mean that all Indiana schools will suffer budget cuts. In fact, under this budget plan, suburban schools will actually enjoy budget increases since education funding will be based on a formula that, as the politicians like to say, "follows the child."
Families with the means to do so continue to flee IPS. This isn't because it's impossible for a kid to get a good education in our city's public schools. What people are fleeing is the poverty that defines the system. The budget proposed by the Indiana House will do nothing to alleviate that poverty. On the contrary, it declares that inner-city poverty is a foregone conclusion, an acceptable loss. It's a slap in the face to every kid who gets up in the morning and struggles to get to school on time.
I know it's hard to imagine being somebody else. It's hard to understand what it's like to do without when you're used to doing OK. But it's even harder to imagine what will become of the thousands of kids in IPS if this budget proposal is passed. Go to www.in.gov. Click "Who's Your Legislator" and e-mail your representative. Tell them to give the kids a chance - and vote this budget down.