Las Vegas Sun

February 19, 2017

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Report: Rise in poverty threatens to further weaken Nevada education system

A top-to-bottom reorganization of the Clark County School District. A program that allows the state to take over struggling schools. The most sweeping school choice program of any state in the country.

Nevada suffers no shortage of programs concocted by lawmakers to improve education, but will any of them make a difference? Not if Nevada continues to see some of the worst child poverty in the country, argue some experts.

Even though the Silver State did manage to rise out of last place in this year’s Kids Count education rankings, the state is faring even worse when it comes to the number of children living in poverty.

The Guinn Center called attention to the crisis in an article published last Friday.

The number of children living in poverty in Nevada is at 22 percent, up from 15 percent in 2008. Similarly, the number of children whose parents lack stable jobs has risen 6 percentage points to 32 percent. In addition, the number of children living in high poverty areas has doubled.

The downward trend comes at a time when Nevada, whose last legislative session saw $800 million funneled into school programs over the next two years, is looking to those same programs to turn around an ailing education system.

“It’s definitely alarming,” said Megan Rauch, associate director of research for the Guinn Center, referring to the effect of poverty on a child's education.

“That means the kid is moving around, the parents might be out of work or on public assistance of some kind,” she said.

Research has conclusively shown that poverty is directly correlated with low academic achievement. A 2011 study cited by the Guinn Center found that “due to [a] lack of resources, many students struggle to reach the same academic achievement levels of students not living in poverty.”

Students living in poverty are exposed to fewer words and limited vocabularies, health conditions that affect their cognitive development and relocation from home to home, all of which have a direct impact on their learning, according to Rauch.

“Poverty is a huge stress in their lives, and it’s with them no matter where they are,” Rauch said. “Being able to focus on academic achievement is not feasible.”

The transient nature of the state — and particularly Las Vegas — is often blamed for these kinds of social problems.

In the Clark County School District, nearly half of the students end up attending a different school than the one they began the year in.

But the trend of students in poverty stretches well beyond Southern Nevada.

Income inequality in America has reached depths last seen in the Roaring '20s, with flat wages leading to a declining middle class and the rise of the wealthy who can trade money for access to better neighborhoods and schools.

In Las Vegas, this is the case in communities like Summerlin and Henderson, where school quality is inevitably better in neighborhoods with higher average household incomes.

In 2013, the percentage of the nation’s students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch programs reached more than 50 percent for the first time in the country’s history.

In Clark County, 57 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. In 2003, that number was 35 percent.

As far as addressing the problem, schools that operate services like food pantries and school supply giveaways go a long way in lifting up individual students. Luckily, a number of groups offer them in Southern Nevada, including Communities in Schools, Project 150, Children’s Cabinet, Three Square and Catholic Charities, among others.

“[Lawmakers] can help by making living wage jobs available for their parents,” Rauch said. “The more stable we can make it for the rest of the family, the more stable it is for children in long run.”

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