Wichita West High School principal Joel Hudson sometimes has his teachers knock on doors in the neighborhoods surrounding the school near Lincoln and McLean. “I want them to see where our children come from,” he said.
State lawmakers and Brownback administration officials should go along – or visit the neighborhoods near many other Wichita schools. If they did, they might better understand the challenges facing students, families and public schools – and maybe start backing policies that support rather than shame them.
Hudson was featured in an article in the Sunday Eagle about a new United Way of the Plains program that’s investing $1 million in the neighborhoods near West High. He noted that even though many houses are in disrepair, it’s not because people are lazy.
“A lot of people here work two jobs, work hard,” Hudson said. “And a number of them show up at West High to talk with us, because they care about their kids.”
One of the problems at West High is absenteeism. But a key cause is that many families can’t afford to go to the doctor.
“So the kids, when they get sick, stay sick longer,” Hudson said. Also, older children may have to stay home to care for sick younger siblings while the parents are working.
Another challenge is that many families move frequently because of financial problems. As a result, some children may attend two or three different schools in the same year.
But these challenges don’t get much notice or sympathy in Topeka.
The Legislature passed a law last year authorizing drug testing of those receiving welfare or unemployment benefits, even though there is no evidence this is a significant problem. And the tax cuts it approved hurt many low-income families, because they no longer receive a refundable food sales-tax rebate or a property-tax refund for renters.
Lawmakers also refuse to allow a federal expansion of Medicaid, which would be a lifeline for many families near West High and elsewhere.
And even as they grudgingly added money to help equalize state funding between wealthy and poorer school districts, some lawmakers seemed more interested in blaming teachers for student failures.
The Brownback administration also has tightened eligibility requirements for welfare, food stamps and child-care assistance. Last fall it even turned away a federal grant to help identify and enroll people who qualify for food stamps.
“Currently we are spending 41 percent less on TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) than we were in 2008. In the meantime, poverty, particularly childhood poverty, has gone up,” state Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, noted this week. “How you rationalize those two numbers is beyond me.”
Maybe that’s something lawmakers and state officials could explain to people who live near West High.