Poverty’s classroom

What’s the secret to better education for all? Unions.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento-based freelance writer

I am not the best nor the worst teacher. But my experiences in the classroom and in life have taught me something about education, poverty and unions.

I begin with a young man, a student in my writing class at ITT Technical Institute in Rancho Cordova months before the housing bubble crashed the economy. He was pleasant and could talk a blue streak around his classmates. Yet he was also underprepared for the coursework. Why?

Part of the answer arrived in classroom readings and writings. I saw that my student was from a background unburdened with surplus cash. That matters.

Then and now, our political leaders focus, almost obsessively, on education as the public policy for opportunity. It’s as if what happens in the lives of students and their parents outside classrooms is of no consequence.

Recent U.S. Census Bureau data reveals that 22 percent of kids, or more than one in five, lives in officially poor households ($22,113 for a family of two adults and two kids).

Cut to 25 years ago. As a teacher, my wife saw the impacts of poverty on the lives of her students at a low-income elementary school in Sacramento. Being poor did not help them learn.

Schools reveal but the tip of the poverty iceberg. To be clear, education is not the cause of the national trend of growing poverty since the 1970s.

To better understand such dynamics, we might look past the conventional wisdom that education alone is the path to a better life.

In Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality, author John Marsh, citing census and labor-market data, suggests that the plunge in the percentage of American workers in labor unions over the past 30 years correlates with rising poverty rates. Think about it. If ordinary workers can’t bargain collectively with employers over pay and working conditions, guess who gets the bigger and smaller slices of the pie?

Instead of prioritizing how to improve what happens to women and men on the job, political leaders scapegoat students, teachers and schools for varied failures.

While political leadership backs education as the only path to prosperity, we witnessed the death of the Employee Free Choice Act, despite Democratic control of the White House and Congress. Recall that the EFCA would have boosted workers’ opportunities to form unions and bargain first contracts with employers.

My late mom and dad ensured that my sister and I grew up in a middle-income household. How? Our parents were labor-union members. Thus, as kids, material and mental advantages, from food to books, surrounded us.

Current poverty rates are a national disgrace. Public policy to solve this outrage must better people’s lives before they arrive in classrooms. Help them be in a labor union. Watch poverty rates fall. Parents, students and teachers across our nation will see the difference.