Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Poverty and the Ability to Learn

Being the ever dutiful hearing officer, I'll start with a disclosure before I get to the substance of this post: I am passionate about the need to eliminate poverty in the USA, or at least to substantially ameliorate its effects. That having been said, let me state that I firmly believe there is an unfortunate and nearly direct relationship between the poverty of a child's family and his poor performance in school.

This makes sense. If a child doesn't eat properly, it affects the brain negatively. If a household is constantly under the extreme stress associated with being poor, a child suffers emotionally. The side effects of poverty, high crime neighborhoods, the lack of the prospect of a better life, etc. also take their toll. It is difficult enough to educate a child under the best of conditions. Poverty causes many extreme obstacles to the learning process.

The effect of poverty upon learning also has an effect upon certain legal issues. Concerning No Child Left Behind data crunching for example, it may well be the relative poverty rate among the groups studied separately, much more so than their status as a subgroup member, that explains their poor performance. The whole group data analysis of NCLB may be flawed because there is an "intervening variable" as they say.

With regard to special education, one of the assumptions underlying the law is that parents will exercise their procedural safeguards if a school district does not provide FAPE to a student. The Supreme Court referred to these procedural safeguards as having the effect of equalizing the field of play in rejecting the argument that school districts should bear the burden of persuasion in due process hearings because they have an advantage in information. Schaffer v. Weast 546 U.S. 49, 126 S.Ct. 528, 44 IDELR 150 (2005). If, however, as many suspect, due process hearings and mediation and other procedural safeguards are accessed almost exclusively by the wealthiest of parents, there may be a flaw in the fundamental design of the compliance sections of the law. OSEP only collects data, and presumably therefore defines success, for the the state dispute resolution systems in terms of the number of settlements (for mediations and resolution sessions) and in terms of timeliness (for hearings and state complaints.) See state performance plan indicators 16 to 19. It would be quite nice if OSEP would develop some data to show who is really utilizing he procedural safeguards. If the families of children with disabilities who are poor only rarely exercise their rights, something is wrong.
Now for an announcement, we are collecting information, studies, opinions, and anecdotes about the relationship between poverty and the ability to learn. In addition to this general topic, please send us whatever you may have regarding poverty and special education in general, and more specifically whether poor families are accessing their procedural safeguards. We are interested in everything from the physical effects of poverty upon the brain to any information on the use of the due process hearing system by various income groups. Please post a comment or send an email with the information. Thanks in advance for any help you can give us.


  1. I hold to the opinion that OSEP should just be replaced by a check writing machine as they obvioulsy have no intention of holding school districts or states accountable prior to doling out of the federal till. And until the Congress restores expert witness fees as reimburseable, it is highly likely that only the wealthiest will be able to access due process. I'd love to hear your comments on HR 4188, the IDEA Fairness Restoration Act. Another good issue to discuss accountability is the study done by NCD titled "Back to School on Civil Rights" The article is dated Jan 25 2000. Unfornately, I don't think much has changed since this research was done.

  2. Regarding your request, I'd invite you down to Alabama, the "birthplace" of civil rights to see how bad it is. I've worked with a number of different families, where it is obvious that the school system is neglecting their duty because they do not think they will be held accountable. I've heard stories where school districts will actually find out what you do, where you live, etc, before making a decision as to whether or not to agree to your requests. If you have money, miraculously the waves of special education are parted. If you don't, those same waves come slamming down on your head. Again, knowing that a parent does not the ability to take you to due process essentially means you do not have to negotiate with them.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, Jeremy.

    I believe that the expert witness fee reimbursement bill will pass and eventually become law. The Supreme Court decision troubled me not so much because of the ruling. Rather the decision troubled me because the high Court went out of its way to change the rules for the use of legislative history in interpreting Congressional intent. The legislative history of IDEA indicated that it was clear to Congress that the IDEA provided for reimbursement of expert fees to prevailing parents. To deal with this, in my opinion, the Court made up a new rule that a court should only use legislative history if the statute is not clear on its face. That has never been the rule in the past. This was, therefore, a very activist and radical action for a Court that calls itself "conservative" and "strict constructionst."

  4. I am a parent of a student with disabilities. I consider myself to be unusual in that I am more highly educated than is considered to be typical in my district, and I have a long history of social advocacy (prior to having children). So--I would say that for a parent with a whole lot of energy and knowledge, wealth might not be the major barrier to achieving due process. I have challenged pro se and with a pro bono attorney, as well as with attorneys financed through various public agencies.

    That said--I would say that few of my battles have ever resulted in change that went beyond the IEP of my own child. It might be different in a district where a critical mass of parents were working on similar issues. In my district, it is far too easy for school staff to tell parents "that's just the way it is."

    Judging by the fact that each new group of teachers presents an IEP without measureable goals, data to suppor the present level of performance, or clearly spelled out supportive services, the standard throughout the system is quite low. I don't receive regular reports until I ask for them--which tells me that it's not happening district-wide. Inclusion is seldom practiced, as evidenced by the fact that there is never an "inclusion classroom" available. What passes as inclusion is putting a kid with an IEP in a regular ed classroom and no services (no wonder parents aren't clamoring for it!). We have two parent mentors--each one part time. A neighboring suburban district (maybe 1/10th the size) has the same number.

    I am only partially with you on the link between poverty and learning. Certainly a less resourced home will have fewer educational advantages. But that less resourced home is very likely surrounded by other less resourced homes in a district that may or may not have equal dollars, but far fewer expectations.