This piece was originally published by Kyle Zimmer on Medium on March 11, 2019.
For 26 years, First Book, the nonprofit social enterprise I lead, has been dedicated to equal education for children in need. One of our programs, the First Book Marketplace, provides books and resources to educators working at high-needs schools and programs across the country. We’re elated when we hear from those educators how the books, Care Closets of basic needs items, art supplies, sports equipment, and evidence-based resources provided by First Book are transforming their classrooms and opening learning and new opportunities for their students.
But often, it feels like our schools are under siege, sometimes by policymakers and others who are far removed from — or completely indifferent to — the realities of today’s public schools, particularly those serving children in less affluent communities.
This is one of those times.
Recently a legislator in Arkansas introduced a bill that would reduce funding to impoverished school districts if its students’ reading scores fall below a certain percentage. Specifically, the bill proposes to decrease the amount of National School Lunch State Categorical Funding a school district can receive if the reading performance of students in grades 3–10 decreases for two years and would eliminate the funds completely if reading scores decline for three straight years.
What could he be thinking?
This concept not only undercuts the children who need us the most, it also degrades the efforts of teachers who are devoting their lives to educate our children. Far too often our country responds to teachers with a disdain that would be unthinkable for another profession.
The bill, which has now been forwarded to the state’s Senate Education Committee, was introduced by a legislator who claims to understand how important reading is to a child’s future. An article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette indicated that in introducing the bill, the legislator “pointed to research that shows the importance of reading on overall student achievement and success.”
The legislator is correct about the importance of reading but wrong about everything else. Schools where both students and educators are struggling with vast needs and minimal resources need MORE support, not less. Yet the reality is the exact opposite.
According to a just-released national study, nonwhite school districts receive $23 billion LESS than white districts, in spite of serving the same number of students. That’s $23 billion with a “b.” This catastrophic funding differential deepens already entrenched inequities:
- In low-income communities, kids start school significantly behind their more affluent peers and often never catch up.
- Just over half of students in U.S. public schools are low-income; in Arkansas, the figure is higher: 61 percent of students qualify for free/reduced-price lunch. According to the Arkansas Department of Education — that means 290,000 out of the approximately 477,000 public school students.
- Many of these children have parents who are working multiple jobs — but are struggling under the weight of poverty. Children from low-income families come to school hungry and under extreme stress. Their only meals are often the ones they receive at school. It can be a long weekend until the next meal.
- The unfulfilled demand for books and educational resources in low-income areas is not slowing down — it’s accelerating. With school funding still below pre-recession levels in 23 states, and with after-school and youth programs challenged for means to keep children engaged, the need for resources is more urgent than ever.
- School budget deficits translate into fewer resources to support learning. Far too many high-needs schools don’t even have a school library; others have nearly empty shelves and often no school librarians to lead critical reading efforts.
- These school budget cuts are carried on the backs of teachers. The average public-school teacher spends approximately $500 of their own money each year on supplies for their classroom or program.
- These inequities are immoral, untenable, and jeopardize the future of our country.
Fortunately, there is a growing understanding that educators need more resources and support. In a national poll by POLITICO/Harvard regarding the public’s priorities for 2019, nearly two-thirds of Republicans, three-quarters of independents, and 84 percent of Democrats said that increasing federal spending on K-12 education should be an “extremely important” priority.
And in Arkansas, comments posted online about this proposed legislation include ones like this:
“Punishing a high-poverty, underperforming school by taking away funding and resources is not the way to improve reading rates and test scores.”
It is no surprise that putting high quality, diverse and inclusive books into kids’ hands supports their ability to read. A meta-analysis of more than 11,000 reports and 108 studies found that access to print materials improves children’s reading performance, and their attitudes towards reading and learning, among other benefits. Yet, access to books is scarce for low-income families: at home, at school, and in their communities. A 2016 survey of an impoverished neighborhood in Washington, D.C. found 1 book for every 830 children. This is not hyperbole — it is reality.
As part of a First Book Research & Insights survey of educators exclusively serving children from low-income communities, 82 percent of respondents reported that without First Book their children would have very few or no new books; and 87 percent reported children’s increased interest in reading after receiving those books. Here’s what we hear from educators:
- “In East Nashville, it’s more likely that you’ll find a fast food restaurant, or a used tire store, or a gas station, or a liquor store before you’ll see a library.”
- “I have families that have to choose between school supplies and food.”
At First Book, we are constantly inspired by the dedication of our nation’s educators. With the support of individual and foundation donors, corporate partners and a talented team, we have distributed more than 175 million books, evidence-based resources, basic needs items, and other educational materials and supplies across the country, but we know we are just scratching the surface.
Recently, First Book was selected by 33 Attorneys General to be the beneficiary of a legal settlement unrelated to our organization, with the goal of infusing books at under-resourced schools and programs in their respective states. As a result, First Book expects to supply high-needs schools and programs with more than $12 million worth of books. To maximize the impact of those resources — and because the needs are so great, we are inviting educators to tell us how they would use books to spark learning and innovation for the students they serve. In the first nine states alone, we received more than 100 proposals — requesting more than $4 million worth of books. We’ll be inviting educators in Arkansas to propose their ideas this summer.
Our educators give their all to support our children. It’s long past time that we gave them the resources needed to do their jobs.