The federal government has a role to play. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was an attempt to level the playing field. A formula was created to distribute federal dollars to schools based on the degree of poverty. But this concept recently has been altered by the Obama administration through the use of competitive grants to states and school districts that comply with the administration’s policy directives.

Formula grants have flat-lined, while additional dollars go to competitive grants. This is happening at a time when districts are suffering a severe economic decline brought about by the Great Recession. Most recently, the federal attempt to level the playing field has been further hampered by sequestration—a mandatory, across-the-board five percent reduction in federal funding affecting the very districts that need these precious dollars the most. More than 1,300 school systems in America receive between 20 and 40 percent of their revenue from the federal government. They are the poorest school systems in America, yet their students will be denied the resources they so desperately need.

Several months ago, AASA collaborated in the development of a study authored by Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA). The study, “Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement,” concludes the lofty goals established by states so they’d receive federal funding will not be achieved because of “lack of time, resources, and the tools to address opportunity gaps.” The reference to opportunity gaps acknowledges that the impact of poverty on learning and the achievement gap between low-income students and the others is growing.

The BBA report cites the 2013 Council on Foreign Relations Renewing America Progress Report and Scorecard, which acknowledges “the real scourge of the U.S. education system—and its greatest competitive weakness—is the deep and growing achievement gap between socioeconomic groups that begins early and lasts through a student’s academic career.”

The models that states and districts were forced to adhere to by Race to the Top ignore the poverty factor. Rather than focusing on out-of-school influences that affect learning, schools are left to address extraneous variables, such as the evaluation of teachers and principals and the turning over of schools to charters and private management firms.

As of 2010, the child poverty rate for black children was 38 percent, followed closely by American Indian children at 34 percent and Hispanic children at 32 percent. The poverty rate for white students was 13 percent. Not surprisingly, the lowest-performing high schools have the highest number of low-income students, where 40 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

We know that performance on the National Assessment for Educational Progress has a high negative correlation with students eligible for free or reduced lunch. We also know that non-poverty students attending a school with a high concentration of poverty are adversely affected, while poor students attending a school with a low concentration of poverty thrive. We also know that poverty does not affect intelligence, although an impoverished environment can affect a child’s ability to concentrate and focus.

(Next page: Where policy makers should be placing their focus)