Better Wages and Better Schools

Members of Congress are preparing for a debate in 2014 over raising the federal minimum wage. From my perspective—and I’m speaking for myself here, not for TNTP—I believe it should be raised.

There are strong opinions on both sides of the issue. My view is admittedly shaped by my work in education. It is difficult for me to accept the fact that an hourly worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and raising a single child could put in 40 hours a week all year—without taking a day of vacation—and still earn so little that according to USDA regulations, his or her child would qualify for free lunch in school. To be clear, I am not talking about reduced-price lunch. I am saying free.

I am not an economist. But it doesn’t seem right to me that parents can work a full-time job but earn so little that they are living below the poverty line. Yet that’s what the current minimum wage guarantees: full-time earnings of $15,080—just shy of the current poverty line for a family of two at $15,510, and thousands below the eligibility cut-off for free school lunch of $20,163.

This is not just about single parents, either. The child of two minimum wage, full-time earners would still be eligible for reduced-price lunch.

To me, the idea of putting a few more dollars in the pockets of working people makes sense. It is one more way of ensuring that children from low-income families have the best opportunity to maximize their potential. And we need to tackle that problem on every front.

For this reason, I’ve always been puzzled by the schools v. poverty debate that arises in education. Most people I know who take an interest in schools understand the effects of poverty and want desperately to alleviate them. They support things like broader access to health care, pre-natal and early childhood services, and smart juvenile justice strategies. They recognize that access to a great school only goes so far when the rest of a young person’s life is unfathomably hard.

But this dynamic cuts both ways. Just as I support a higher minimum wage because it will help some of the students I care most about, I also support doing everything possible to ensure that schools create opportunity. It doesn’t make sense to me that we’d fight for higher wages and then turn a blind eye when one of the most important levers for economic advancement and social mobility—schools—fails to deliver.

Poverty is a huge burden on families. But poverty does not prevent us from being ready with top-notch instruction when a student walks in the door, full of hope that school is a path to a better tomorrow. That sort of possibility is a profoundly American value—one that is in clear danger of being reversed. And that hope should fuel our school improvement efforts with an incredible sense of urgency.

Isn’t it sort of absurd to debate the chicken-or-the-egg question of which should come first, eradicating childhood poverty or improving schools?  Isn’t there overwhelming evidence that unless we do more on both of those fronts, children born into modest circumstances face truly un-American odds of reaching the middle class, earning degrees, holding down good jobs and paying into our future? 

It can be risky to talk politics. People of good faith often disagree profoundly. I understand that, and I respect it. Some folks I know who want desperately to improve outcomes for low-income students probably oppose raising the minimum wage. But for me, it is inconsistent with my goals. And the idea of backing off high standards and accountability for schools while raising the minimum wage would be inconsistent too. If you are one of our regular readers and you would like to make an argument for either of those positions, email us and we’d be happy to consider running it.

Until then, I’ll stand by my position that if we want to see more low-income students succeed, we ought to be unleashing the full court press, not picking and choosing our spots to engage.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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