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Barbara Fedders and Jason Langberg

Abstracted from:  Barbara Fedders and Jason Langberg,   School-based Legal Services as a Tool in Dismantling the School-to-prison Pipeline and Achieving Educational Equity, 13 University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class 212 (Fall, 2013) (119 Footnotes)

Advocates fighting against the "school-to-prison pipeline"  pipeline have focused on resource starvation,  zero tolerance disciplinary policies,  excessive suspensions and expulsions,  school  Barbara Fedderspolicing,  and high-stakes testing  that affect youth of color once they begin attending school. Youth of color are disproportionately likely to be from low-income families, and they face particular challenges as a result of the interaction between poverty and racism.  This Article has three aims: to analyze the way in which poverty makes youth of color particularly vulnerable to involvement in the pipeline; to argue that advocates should include poverty and its ill effects in the discourse around ending the pipeline; and to propose the establishment of more school-based legal clinics as one step toward ameliorating poverty's negative effects, and ultimately the pipeline.

A child whose family is in poverty faces substantial hurdles in succeeding academically, particularly given that academic success is consistently measured by performance on standardized tests.  Poverty makes it more difficult for children to learn and comply with behavioral expectations, especially rigid, punitive school discipline regimes.  Schools in high-poverty districts--which are often districts populated disproportionately by students of color  have  lower graduation rates  and higher rates of school suspension and expulsion  than other schools.

Given the enormous political pressure--including financial penalties and incentives  on schools to ensure that their students succeed on standardized tests, schools have had to struggle to respond to povertyJason Langberg in ways that help all students reach their potential. Governmental programs targeted at low-wealth students, such as free and reduced-price lunch,  early childhood education,  and supplemental educational services,  do help some youths, yet more can be done within schools themselves.

Grassroots organizations,  law and policy organizations,  other advocacy organizations,  the philanthropic community,  and  policymakers  are diligently working to replace punitive disciplinary practices with more positive, productive alternatives, as well as  ameliorate the effects of school policing, push back against efforts to arm personnel and civilians in schools,  and reverse the negative impacts of market-based changes to public education.

Some authors and organizations have acknowledged and explored the connection between poverty and the pipeline.  For the most part, however, advocates have not emphasized poverty as much as other school-specific factors.  One reason for minimizing the impact of poverty is strategic. Advocates may worry that  acknowledging that students from low-wealth families have built-in disadvantages that make them more vulnerable to the pipeline could relieve schools of their responsibility to ensure that all students can succeed. Second, proponents of market-based "solutions" for failing schools--school closings, merit pay, competition from charters and vouchers, etc.--have argued that focusing on poverty as a reason for student difficulty defends the status quo.  School-to-prison pipeline opponents may have, however inadvertently, allowed themselves to be swayed by this argument. A third reason why the impact of poverty is minimized may be that a child's socioeconomic status, unlike race and disability, is not a category protected by civil rights laws.  Finally, advocates rely heavily on data from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which focus on race, ethnicity, sex, disability, and limited English proficiency.

Unfortunately, overlooking the impact of poverty on the school-to-prison pipeline has negative consequences. Targeting only school policies and practices can have the unfortunate effect of pitting advocates against teachers and school administrators. In fact, advocates and school personnel could and should be allies in the struggle to demand increased funding for public education and in pushing to end high-stakes testing regimes, both of which would go a long way toward dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.  A focus on poverty--its ill effects and efforts to ameliorate it--can create a  common ground for families, staff, and advocates alike. Further, focusing on poverty is necessary to create the comprehensive approach needed to fully dismantle the pipeline.

At present, some education advocates have begun to push back against proponents of market-based "reforms," arguing that educators and administrators must address poverty if they are to fulfill their educational mission.  We seek to specifically address poverty's role in the school-to-prison pipeline and to analyze one possible solution: school-based legal services.

School-based legal services (SBLS)  is a rarely utilized tool that schools can use to alleviate poverty and its impacts on education, and, consequently, to improve academic achievement and equity. SBLS involves providing a school's low-income families with legal services in civil matters such as housing, employment, consumer, domestic violence, immigration, public benefits, and family law.

Part II of this article provides data on child poverty in the United States. Part III explores the role played by poverty in fueling the school-to-prison pipeline. Part IV discusses the rationales for providing SBLS and how SBLS is consistent with similar school-based efforts to address student poverty and with statutes requiring interventions for "at-risk" students. In this part, we also situate our proposal within the universe of "best practice" responses to the school-to-prison pipeline. Part V provides an overview of possible models for delivering SBLS and explores potential obstacles to the widespread implementation of SBLS. This article concludes with a call to expand the use of SBLS.

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The school-to-prison pipeline is a crisis in public education. After three decades of rapid expansion, the pipeline may finally begin to shrink as a result of tireless efforts by advocates to eliminate zero tolerance, over-policing, and other policies and practices that criminalize the school environment, alienate families, and push out students. Eradicating the pipeline, however, will require focused attention to poverty, which has negative impacts on students' academic and behavioral outcomes. While many children from low-income families do succeed academically, poverty still creates a structural obstacle that advocates must address as they focus on school-specific problems such as policing and high-stakes testing.  SBLS is a valuable tool that can help students avoid becoming trapped in the pipeline.

Schools that implement SBLS will still need more support. SBLS will certainly improve school climate and student outcomes, but will not sufficiently diminish student poverty and its impacts. Nor should schools alone be expected to deal with poverty.  Children from disadvantaged backgrounds and public schools need an "it takes a village," comprehensive approach to poverty. Working together, we can shrink the school-to-prison pipeline. However, eliminating it will require much more: a true war on poverty, a living wage, minimal unemployment, universal healthcare, paid sick and family leave, tax credits for low-income workers, and childcare, housing, and food assistance for all who are in need.  Those goals must, as well, be part of progressive education advocacy.

Clinical Associate Professor, University of North Carolina School of Law.