When I was a charter school leader, I constantly heard reformers justify district takeovers, teacher firings, ineffective voucher programs and abusive “no excuse” discipline policies by saying, “It’s all about the kids.” They insisted that if we could get rid of the adult problems — replacing teachers, parents and administrators — students could overcome poverty.
Many reformers viewed poverty as an inadequate excuse for students’ academic failings, citing flimsy research that claimed 90 percent of low-income students of color can and do meet the highest academic standards — the so called 90/90/90 schools. The problem with the concept was the originator used a low bar to make sure 90 percent of students met the standard, equating “basic” or barely minimal competency with high achievement. And it shrugged off the mounds of research that show a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement.
After more than a quarter century, reformers’ actions have laid bare the fact that education reform was more about advancing a political agenda than helping kids. Under the guise of helping children, many reformers used the mantra of innovation to cover a boilerplate conservative agenda that aimed to privatize schools, upend teachers unions and disempower school districts.
These “innovative” ideas made it more obvious that charter schools and vouchers are no match for poverty when it comes to academic outcomes. It also became clearer that reforms that reduce the number of Black workers, remove political representation and ignore poverty make matters worse for communities.
But there’s been a reckoning around the racism that denies the effects of poverty; even mainstream politicians have recognized that the best way to cure many of society’s ills is to reduce the level of poverty.
Earlier this month President Joe Biden announced that Senate Democrats had reached a $3.5 trillion budget resolution to permanently expand the child tax credit, a benefit granted to all but the most affluent American taxpayers for each qualifying dependent child. In March, in the face of unanimous Republican opposition, Democrats used the budget reconciliation process to push through legislation to temporarily expand the child tax credit as part of the Biden’s administration’s COVID relief package, the American Rescue Plan Act.
The expansion of the child tax credit would reduce child poverty by 45 percent overall, and by 52 percent for Black children, 45 percent for Hispanic children and nearly 62 percent for Native American children, according to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University. Poverty is linked to hunger, homelessness, crime and lower academic achievement. Republican opposition to the expansion of the child tax credit shows the extent to which the GOP will allow children to suffer rather than give up the myth that providing financial support simply encourages the poor to quit working and to disdain marriage.
The March legislation increased the maximum annual child tax credit from $2,000 for each child under age 17, in 2020, to $3,000 per child under age 18 or $3,600 per child under age 6, in 2021. In its earlier form, the child tax credit was nonrefundable, meaning that if the credit took the taxpayer’s liability down to zero or below, no money was refunded. That design prevented many of the poorest households from receiving any assistance. The changes to the credit make it fully refundable so that every single-filer household making under $112,500, or married household making under $150,000, will be eligible for the full credit. The changes also allow families to access half of the credit in the form of monthly payments, rather forcing families to wait until tax season each year to receive the full amount.
On the 15th of each month, all eligible households should receive a check for up to $300, depending on the number and ages of children, from now through December. The remaining six months’ worth of the credit for 2021 will be paid when families file their taxes in April next year. Households that filed in 2020 will be enrolled automatically in the child tax credit benefit, while those who did not file last year can enroll through a special website created by the IRS.
The new expansion of the child tax credit is an important first step in strengthening the social safety net by providing financial support to families. Yes, education reformers, poverty does matter. But monthly checks alone are not a solution to some of the larger issues we face as a nation, including failing infrastructure, lack of public transit, lack of affordable housing — particularly in areas with well-funded schools that have more resources to help kids coming in with the least — and an inequitable school financing system that allows some schools to hoard resources while others are left underfunded.
In addition to expanding the credit, we must also ensure the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), to give workers more bargaining power, and pass both the physical and social infrastructure bills. Early education and child care are as critical to our economic health as repairs to roads and bridges.
These monthly child tax credit checks will make a tangible difference in the lives of countless families. Parents will be better able to buy their children basic goods, including school supplies, clothing and other necessities, and to fund important extracurricular activities such as visits to museums and zoos. And, in addition to the importance of the money itself, the regularity of the checks will help to ease stress regarding bills and expenses, while making it easier to budget — especially for households with irregular income.
Let’s put the nail in the coffin of the “students of color are trapped in failing schools” rhetoric. Poverty and poor thinking are the traps students need to be released from.
Andre Perry, Ph.D., is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously, Perry worked in both academic and administrative capacities, most notably as CEO of the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network, which consisted of four charter schools in New Orleans. Perry earned his Ph.D. in education policy and leadership from the University of Maryland-College Park.
This commentary was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
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