Utah Schoolchildren Poverty Rate Rising

Utah Schoolchildren Poverty Rate Rising

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A U.S. Census Bureau report on school district poverty rates shows that from 1995-2000, the number of public schoolchildren in poverty rose 112 percent, adding to the state's perpetual dilemma of finding enough money for education needs.

The numbers, which are estimates based on the 1990 and 2000 census, released Nov. 28 with no prior notification, show that in 1995 there were 38,046 K-12 students in Utah considered poor. By 2000, 5,715 more children were determined to be living in poverty for a total of 43,761 out of the total 2000 school-age population of 501,000.

Seven Utah districts showed a decline in the number of school children in poverty over the five-year period. Murray district showed the largest drop with 37.4 percent fewer poor children, which district Superintendent Richard Tranter attributed to an aging population.

The census numbers show the district lost 500 residents, 342 of them children.

But that's because Murray residents "never leave," Tranter said. With few new starter homes, "many of the people who live here grew up here. We have lots of pockets of subdivisions ... with lots of retired people," he said.

San Juan district shows a 10.7 percent drop in poor schoolchildren over the five-year period, but that is likely due to the number of families moving away, said district Superintendent Douglas Wright.

Wright pointed to jobs lost when a mill tailings cleanup project ended, as well as a lack of opportunity. "Generally, the economy in San Juan County is pretty dismal," he said.

In the Navajo Nation in the southern part of the district, Wright said, families are moving over the border to Arizona, which has led to a drop in students at Whitehorse High in Montezuma in favor of larger Kayenta High. Elementary schools on the reservation have shown a similar drop, he said.

The Census Bureau calculates poverty level estimates each year, then uses them to calculate federal Title I funds as well as No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 assistance disbursed to the states. Title I funds provide aid to poor children and help more than 90 percent of the nation's school districts.

The poverty threshold differs depending on size and makeup of a household. For example, a person under 65 living alone in 2002 was considered poor if income was $9,359 or less. For a family of three including one child, the threshold was $14,480.

Children from poor families qualify for federally funded free or reduced-cost lunches; the number of such children determines whether a school qualifies for Title I. Utah is in line to receive an estimated $107 million in Title I and No Child Left Behind money in 2004. The state Office of Education disburses the money to the school districts according to federal regulations.

But the No Child money comes with so many strings, state and local officials around the country are trying to figure out how they will pay for the standardized tests and other requirements. The goal is to have all students proficient in math and reading by 2014. How much that will cost is a mystery.

A handful of states have passed resolutions urging Congress and the president to fully fund the act and other federal mandates. Lawmakers in few other states, including Utah, are toying with the idea of forfeiting the federal money. New Hampshire is considering a bill that would forbid the state from spending money to implement No Child.

That's because some cost-benefit analyses show that it would take far more money than what the feds will provide to pay for fully implementing the act. For example, University of Wisconsin economics and public policy professor Andrew Rechovsky surveyed Texas school districts and found it would cost up to $21 billion to bring the state to full No Child Left Behind compliance.

Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, is considering sponsoring a bill in 2004 to forgo federal education funding, which makes up about 7 percent of Utah's statewide education funding.

But state education officials aren't quite ready to say opting out of the $107 million federal grant is a reasonable move.

State Office of Education official Patrick Ogden said that the funds are for the state's most vulnerable children, and while there are states that believe the cost-benefit ratio is out of whack, Utah has yet to do that kind of analysis. And as long as no such analysis is done, the argument over No Child is just another states' rights versus the feds argument, he said.

Meanwhile, the services that poor children need are "essential," Ogden said. The needs accompanying such problems as poor nutrition, parental work issues and limited English proficiency "will require additional funding to ensure those children receive a quality education," he said. "Therefore, the incremental cost is probably small enough that we would be willing to put it up or pay for it in order to keep this $107 million."

While the state is experiencing a general increase in the number of school-age children in poverty, five Utah school districts -- Nebo, Jordan, Tooele, Duchesne and Ogden -- have shown a decrease in the number of poor children even as the general school-age population has grown.

Other statistics appear more sobering. Tintic district seems to have fared the worst: According to the census estimates, the tiny district made up of two high schools and three elementary schools saw a 174 percent increase in the number of poor children. In absolute numbers, however, there were 15 such children in 1995; in 2000, there were 48. During the same period, the district's school-age population grew from 232 to 271.

Wayne district, also quite small, shows a 134 percent increase in poor children for the period. In 1995, there were 629 children in the district; by 2000, that had dropped to 581 -- but the number of poor children doubled, from 62 to 134.

Wayne District Superintendent Ralph Starr said that in Hanksville, about 90 percent of the children qualified for the federal free-lunch program, with the other three schools in the district averaging 60 percent qualified.

"The only jobs here are services for tourists, agriculture, something to do with cattle or mining," Starr said. Though young people may want to stay to raise their families, economics force them to find work elsewhere, he said.

Park City district's 117 percent increase in poor children places it third on the list of districts with the greatest increase in poor children for 1995-2000. But the 235 children considered poor in 2000 -- up from 65 in 1995 -- only make up 5.4 percent of the district's population.

District business manager Von Horton said that, in part, the growing numbers are due to an influx of Spanish-speaking families whose parents work in the Park City-area ski resorts; with these children have come an increase in Title I funding from $68,000 to nearly $200,000, with two of the district's four elementary schools now considered Title I schools.

The census estimates show that in Utah, Weber, South Summit and Carbon districts, the number of poor children increased less than 1 percent during the five-year period. Morgan district showed a 41 percent increase in poor children over five years, but a 17 percent decrease between 1999 and 2000.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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