As children across the country send their wish lists to Santa, we put forth our own. Looking back on a year marked both by record-high levels of income inequality, and by increasing recognition of the damage that inequity brings, we wish for all of our children the life basics that better-off children can take for granted:
1.) Parents who earn a living wage: Nearly half of American children spend their early years at or below twice the federal poverty level, which poses major obstacles to their school, life and success. And the federal minimum wage of $7.25 is far too low to lift a family out of poverty, even if a parent works full time. Recognizing this reality, four states – Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota – recently established state minimum wages higher than the federal one, as have cities from California to Maryland. Research affirms the substantial benefits, and the lack of downsides, to such actions. Let’s revisit the Harken-Miller proposal to raise the wage to $10.10, boosting one-in-five US kids!
2.) Three square meals a day: In 2012, more than one in five children lived in households that could not always provide them nutritious meals. Children who begin school without healthy breakfast cannot focus in class. Too many skipped meals cause sickness, missed school days and ultimately, chronic health problems. We must strengthen school meal nutrition requirements and continue to expand school breakfast, dinner and summer meal programs, as well as protect food stamps from further cuts. No child or adult in a country as rich as ours should be hungry!
3.) Nurturing, stimulating care in their first years of life: The costs of child care are prohibitive for low-income families, only half of whom have access to pre-kindergarten, while providers’ poverty-level wages make clear the need for public investment. We must build on momentum to improve child care quality and accessibility, expand home visiting programs, and take action on the president’s call for universal pre-kindergarten. We must also encourage more states and districts to follow the leads of New York City, San Antonio and Boston – making quality pre-k available to all who need it!
4.) Safe, stable housing in healthy communities: As the recent tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, reminds us, 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, our cities and schools remain starkly segregated. Too many children of color grow up in neighborhoods marked by restricted opportunities, high rates of violence and unemployment, and schools and other public institutions that struggle to compensate. Communities should embrace smart zoning policies and mixed-use housing, so every American child can experience the melting pot!
5.) Doctors and dentists when they need them (and when they don’t): The Affordable Care Act helps more kids get health insurance and will reduce by half the number who can’t access a dentist. But we still have lots of work to do. School-based health clinics help parents avoid lost wages to take kids to the doctor’s office, and they reduce chronic absence and support student mental health. They can be supported by the ACA and are gaining steam. Keep the momentum going!
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6.) Qualified, experienced teachers: The focus, in recent years, on using student test scores to weed out “bad” teachers has compounded high-poverty schools’ historic challenge to recruit and retain strong teachers. High-stakes testing forces educators in such schools to devote more time to test prep and less to activities that make teaching rewarding, and punishes them for choosing to work where they can have the greatest impact. Teaching in high-poverty schools is among the most rewarding, and also most challenging jobs; those teachers merit our respect, and they need all our support, from strong preparation and induction programs to ensuring they have the resources to do their best for kids every day!
7.) Enriching educational experiences: The same property-tax based system that hampers low-income schools’ capacity to hire strong teachers leaves them short of the other resources – from computers and libraries to nurses and counselors – that help those teachers be effective. Regressive state funding systems compound the problem, forcing cuts to the art, music, civics and physical education classes that make school engaging and are critical for life success. Follow the lead of organizers in Philadelphia – demand a stop to the starvation of our high-poverty schools!
8.) The chance to build on those experiences in afternoons, weekends and summers: Research shows that achievement gaps grow the most between June and September – when wealthier students expand on their school experiences through arts, organized sports and travel, while many of their low-income peers lack those options. Until we ensure all students access to enriching afterschool and summer programs, we’ll continue to waste precious chances to avert summer learning loss and help all students discover their unique talents!
9.) An education system in which the voices of educators, parents and students are front-and-center: We must stop acting as if improving conditions for teachers comes at the expense of dollars for children, suggesting that staking teachers’ jobs on test scores is actually good for students, and treating some parents as obstacles to be avoided, rather than assets to be leveraged. Effective, sustainable reform bubbles up from each community’s needs and resources, and has its foundations in what true classroom experts – those who work and learn there — see and experience every day.
10.) Big American Dreams, and lives that make attaining those dreams possible.