Remember all the times that “reformers” like Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Wendy Kopp, and Joel Klein have said that the answer to poverty is to “fix” schools first? Remember their claims that school reform (more testing, more charters, more inexperienced teachers, larger classes, more technology) would vanquish poverty? For the past decade, our society has followed their advice, pouring billions into the pockets of the testing industry, consultants, and technology companies, as well as Teach for America, the over-hyped charter industry, and the multi-billion search for a surefire metric to evaluate teachers.

But what if they are wrong? What if all those billions were wasted on their pet projects, ambitions, and hunches, while child poverty kept growing?

The latest study, reported by Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post, shows a staggering increase in child poverty across the nation. The majority of public school students in the South and the West now qualify for free or reduced price lunch. By federal standards, that means they are poor.

The United States has a greater proportion of children living in poverty than any other advanced nation in the world. We are #1 in child poverty. This is shameful.

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked on the phenomenon of “feeding the horses to feed the sparrows.” In this case, the horses are the educational industrial complex. They are gobbling up federal, state, and local funding while children and families go hungry, lacking the medical care, economic security, and essential services they need. Instead of helping their families to become self-sufficient, we are fattening the testing industry. Instead of assuring that their schools have the guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists, and librarians the children need, our states are stripping their schools to the bare walls. Instead of supplying the arts and physical education that children need to nourish body and soul, we let them eat tests.

Every dollar that fattens the educational industrial complex–not only the testing industry and the inexperienced, ill-trained Teach for America but the corporations now collecting hundreds of millions of dollars to tell schools what to do–is a dollar diverted from what should be done now to address directly the pressing needs of our nation’s most vulnerable children, whose numbers continue to escalate, demonstrating the utter futility and self-serving nature of what is currently and deceptively called “reform.”

Once these futile programs have collapsed, once they have been exposed as hollow (though lucrative) gestures, we will look back with sorrow at the lives wasted, the billions squandered, the incalculable damage to our children and our society.

Someday we will say, as we should be saying now, that we cannot tolerate the loss of so many young lives. We cannot continue to blame teachers, principals, and schools for our collective abandonment of so many children. We cannot allow, and should no longer permit, the income inequality that protects the billionaires while neglecting the growth of a massive underclass. The age of the Robber Barons has returned. Good for them, but bad, very bad, for America.