Volume 16 Issue 3
By CTA President Dean E. Vogel
I lived in a poor household growing up in rural Chino. During those years my father was an itinerant farmhand, which until I was in about the fourth grade meant our family lived on the margins. I recall, when I was 8 years old and my brother 6, the two of us alone at home in the early morning before school lighting the gas pilot in the stove with a wadded piece of paper, trying to make breakfast. For some kids that’s the reality of everyday life. They live with very little, alone much of the time because their parents are working hard to put food on the table — or worse, they’re neglectful in other ways.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what an incredible disadvantage some of our students face and the harsh reality they wake to every single morning. Current numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show that one in four children lives in poverty in California. That’s so astounding and sad. Many of those underprivileged kids wake up in the mornings, like I did, to empty homes where parents have already left for work. Some wake up in motel rooms their family is sharing with another. And some wake up in shelters or on the street, having lost their home. These young people are being forced to grow up too fast with too little.
As educators, we may not know everything that goes on in our students’ lives, but we know that what happens outside of school can be just as important to student success as what happens during the school day.
The first time I recognized poverty in my classroom was in Sacramento in 1972, where I came across kids who were so poor that they clearly weren’t getting enough to eat. The only decent meals those kids had were maybe once a day from the school lunch program. You could see that they were sleep-deprived as well. How is a child supposed to learn under those difficult circumstances? The obstacles those students face, before they even reach school and open that first book, are enormous.
Our country is in a real crisis, with more and more people and children living in poverty each year. While corporate income has grown over 400 percent in the last seven years, personal income for most people has grown just 28 percent. There is so much money in this country, but most of it is at the top, leaving our most vulnerable to fend for themselves. One-third of our nation’s wealth is held by the richest 1 percent. As the Occupy Wall Street movement spreads, local CTA associations are joining forces with protesters and speaking out publicly about how growing inequality and the concentration of corporate power and executive wealth undermine the foundations of our democracy. Repairing the problem means changing our state’s tax structure to provide stable, adequate funding for California schools, colleges and essential social services. Public education is the way out of this recession and the way out of poverty for many of our students.
Generally speaking, the child born to the poorest family and the child born to the richest family have the same potential to succeed. Too often political leaders fail to recognize and support potential in the poor children and shrink from their responsibility to give them an equal chance. It’s time to put a fair and equitable system in place, so that all of our students are given the chance to succeed and prosper. It’s the only way to a better future for them, and for us.