I wrote this post for this blog in June of 2016. When I took the data to the district staff, they confirmed that the gap was not limited to specific schools or grade levels. It was a district-wide problem. We did not have an explanation, but the income-gap may have been an indicator. Gainesville had the fifth highest income gap in the nation.
In 2018, the U.F. Bureau of Economic and Business Research published a study of racial inequity in Alachua County. They reported that Alachua County African Americans fared worse than in other areas of the state and nation. Specifically, they have lower economic well being, educational performance and attainment, and more involvement in the justice system. These factors are correlated. Children from low-income families struggle.
In 2016, many explained the achievement gap in Alachua County by pointing to the fact that Gainesville is a college town. Its people value education. The district has national awards in math, AP, and culinary arts among other areas. How could there be a problem? Yet, there are the same achievement gap problems in Alachua County schools as there are across the nation. Some say that the problems are worse, and implicit racism in schools is the culprit. There may be other explanations.
Given the close relationship between income and academic achievement, it may be income disparities, not teachers’ insensitivity to race that accounts for at least some of the gaps in achievement between minority and white children.
Poverty may not be the only causal factor in low achievement. Some claim that education funding is not equal across schools. Yet, Alachua County district data show that the lowest performing schools have the highest per student funding. In some cases, the funding for at risk schools is twice the per student rate for schools in higher income areas. Granted more funding is needed for all schools, but there are other explanations as well.
In a recent New York Times article, college towns are singled out. They tend to have the highest achievement gaps between students from low income families and those from higher income families. This is not a new phenomenon. A study back in the 1990s found the same thing. Some people choose to live in college towns because they value education. They push their children to succeed and provide tutors and other support that is less common than in other areas. Achievement gaps, between children from low and higher-income families in college towns, therefore, are larger. This is not the whole story either.
Some educators argue that white students living in poverty do better than black students. The data often show these differences. If the most egregious segregation occurs in specific schools, the impact may create conditions that hinder learning for poor children even more than in schools that have a better socio-economic balance. These struggling schools may have more trauma related discipline problems and also have difficulty recruiting the most qualified teachers.
The argument that Alachua County has the largest achievement gaps in the state seems alarming at first blush. Poverty data in a college town, however, is often skewed by the percentage of college students counted in the poverty rate. Their poverty is transitory. Florida has 1.3 million college students living off campus (not with a family member) who are included in poverty statistics. This is one of the highest rates in the nation. Given that Gainesville is a relatively small city and the University of Florida and Santa Fe College have over 85,000 students, the impact of students on poverty rates in Alachua County is substantial. The percentage of these students who have children enrolled in the public schools may also be substantial.
The U.S. Census reports that when students living off campus (not with a family member) are excluded from the poverty census, poverty levels decline .4% in New York City and 15.5% in Gainesville, Florida. This drop in Gainesville is the largest in the nation. College students in Gainesville may look poor on paper but may come from very different backgrounds than families trapped in poverty. Comparing their children’s achievement scores simply would not be fair. Thus, it is no surprise that Gainesville looks different on paper than other cities; it is. Hopefully, a researcher will explore just how different.
Data, however, are not children. Alachua County has children in need. There are schools that struggle. There is a disproportionate number of minority children living in poverty. This is not the schools’ fault, but it is their problem. We need to help them. In fact, our community is working to bring up wages, improve schools, and provide better support services. There is just so much more to do. This has to be our focus.