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Money won't boost LA minority student outcomes

A Legislative Auditor report outlining racial and family income differences in types of schools and quality of schools attendance in Louisiana suggests a couple of tactics to try to close those gaps.

As noted previously, the report provided data that underscored the importance of correctly understanding the nature of poverty. A widely mistaken view of it, chiefly inculcated in the political left, is that poverty comes from a lack of fiscal resources measured by household income, which the left often attributes to an economic and social system that deliberately stacks the deck against some people, particularly racial minorities and women, that benefits others.

In reality, poverty comes from a lack of attitudes associated with a future orientation in the valuing of costs and benefits, which becomes expressed in lower household incomes. Except for the small subset of individuals who physically or mentally have disabilities that significantly impede their abilities to contribute to society, as well as those facing a temporary run of bad luck, among the poor the vast majority in the past made, and many continue today to make, poor decisions (unfortunately for some with significant pressures to do so) that have left them with few skills and/or significant burdens that encourage them to stay impoverished.

Thus, the aim of government policy to reduce poverty must be to reorient them from overvaluing present benefits and undervaluing future costs at the expense of discounting future benefits and present costs – living for the future rather than the present. It should not be exclusively or even primarily compensating the poor as a kind of payoff for their “victimization,” because the locus of poverty for most comes from within themselves, not something imposed from the outside. Policy must encourage use of self-restraint from indulging in appetites and instead steer people towards investing in their futures.

Unless poverty is correctly understood, this can lead to misdiagnosis of Louisiana’s educational system woes, for education is perhaps the paramount future investment. So, if upon registering that worse schools have higher proportions of children from poorer families attending them, which also is reflected in higher proportions of black children in those schools as American median black household income in 2021 was just 62 percent of white household income, to improve schools the magic bullet isn’t to redistribute more wealth to poorer households because that treats only the symptom, lack of resources, not the disease, lack of what used to be called “character.” The problem will persist if the disease is left untreated, its severity masked by attending only to the symptoms.

Nor, as an indirect solution, throwing money at schools going to do the trick, either. Potentially, spending more and particularly on districts with more poor students (which the Minimum Foundation Program attempts to do in circuitous fashion by compensating for district financial effort as a proxy for relative community wealth) could increase the socialization power of schooling to overcome attitudes holding back children. The data show otherwise; the latest district performance scores (imperfect as they are) when correlated with spending per student show essentially no relationship at all – not statistically significant and in fact slightly negative, or that as spending increases performance decreases.

As a final confirmation that increased spending pales in comparison to creating a cultural shift that will improve student achievement and particularly among the poor, consider that the thesis that to spend more will improve achievement because that negates the alleged structural disadvantage faced by the poor especially in the case of blacks rests on the assumption that ingrained racism is a principal source of this. Accordingly, if a presumed white-controlled society and economy acting out of racism rigs outcomes, all non-white groups must suffer.

Yet the median household income statistics pegs that for Asians at 30 percent above whites, into six figures annually. If the racism as form of white control thesis were valid, Asians also because of discrimination would have incomes lower than whites. Instead, this outcome validates the culture thesis: because Asian families tend to be more similar to white families generally in promoting more a future rather than present orientation in their children, this translates into decisions that make less likely poverty among them.

Clearly, any strategy to improve educational achievement among the poor, and thus disproportionately blacks (and Hispanics, who to a lesser extent attend disproportionately worse schools and nationally have an income at 74 percent the level of white households) must involve a cultural shift. Research suggests two tactics to accomplish this.

One is voluntary integration. Involuntary integration, such as through forced busing, was declared unconstitutional about 15 years ago (to the consternation of the academic left), but other involuntary methods exist. Some Louisiana districts have tried magnet schools, but where the state has been a real leader in school choice comes in the form of charter schools.

The idea here is that creating more diverse schools by whatever method improves minority student performance, potentially by exposing these students to a different cultural environment as well as possibly having more resources to deploy in their education. Some minor improvements, although not universally observed, have come in minority student achievement, for example, using a model where students enter a charter school by lottery but constrained by certain parameters such minimum proportion of lower-income and/or maximum proportion of one race.

Consider that this isn’t what Louisiana does, where (except for Orleans Parish which has a first-come/first-serve open enrollment model with some carveouts) charters draw from the attendance zone of a distressed school first and foremost. The best strategy here would be to have all districts implement open enrollment for all schools, traditional and charter, with some low-income minimum proportion and other (legacy, magnet programs, neighborhood, etc.) guardrails.

The other is taking advantage of the sociological trait that students look to teachers as role models, especially when they stand in stark contrast to their typical cultural environments. Research ascertains, for example, that black students do better when they have black teachers, and particularly black boys taught by black males. This is a way of showing students who might otherwise see few such examples in their lives someone who invested in their future through adequate schooling and then more at the tertiary level or by alternative means to become part of the professional middle class.

Of course, you can’t make people become teachers. Generally, pay as an extrinsic motivator in fact usually isn’t as important as other motivators, both extrinsic and intrinsic. Pointedly, the influence of others is the most significant factor. A particular barrier to those seeing it as a second career is channels by which to achieve certification outside of returning to school for an education degree.

Minority educators will have to do a lot of this on their own, in terms of encouraging students to seek that career. To help them and make the job more attractive by reducing stress from non-teaching elements of the job, policy can remove distractions such as increasing disciplinary options and enforcement. And it should promote increased recruitment (including facilitating alternative credentialing) of those interested in it as a second career; for example, black males disproportionately comprise military and law enforcement officers that often allow substantially earlier retirement where their backgrounds suggest they would make good teachers.

The data demonstrate the non-recursive relationship of school success and poverty would not lead to improvement of both simply by throwing money at schools and the poor. Policy that changes the culture too prevalent among disadvantaged students from immediate gratification to investing in selves, even if forgoing near-term appetitive satisfaction, is the only way to bring this about.

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