Schools in the South and West are trending toward poverty

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A majority of students in public schools throughout the U.S. South and West are low-income for the first time in at least four decades, according to a new study that details a demographic shift with broad implications for the nation.

The analysis by the Southern Education Foundation, the oldest U.S. education philanthropy, is based on the number of students from preschool through 12th grade who were eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals program in the 2010-11 school year. The meals program run by the Department of Agriculture is a rough proxy for poverty, because a family of four could earn no more than $40,793 a year to qualify in 2011.

Children of those low-income families dominated classrooms in 13 states in the South and the four Western states with the largest populations in 2011, researchers found. A decade earlier, just four states reported poor children as a majority of their public schools' student population.

But by 2011, almost half of the nation's 50 million public-school students, 48 percent, qualified for free or reduced-price meals. In some states, such as Mississippi, that proportion was 71 percent.

In a large swath of the nation, classrooms are filling with children who begin kindergarten already behind their more privileged peers, who lack support at home to succeed and who are more than likely to drop out of school or never attend college.

Michael Rebell, executive director of Columbia University's Campaign for Educational Equity, was struck by the rapid spike in poverty. He said the change helps explain why the United States lags other nations in international tests.

"When you break down the various test scores, you find the high-income kids, high-achievers are holding their own and more," Mr. Rebell said. "It's when you start getting down to schools with a majority of low-income kids that you get astoundingly low scores. Our real problem regarding educational outcomes is not the U.S. overall; it's the growing low-income population."

Southern states have seen rising numbers of poor students for a decade, but the trend spread west in 2011, to include rapidly increasing levels of poverty among students in California, Nevada, Oregon and New Mexico.

The 2008 recession, immigration and a low-income families' high birthrate have largely fueled the changes, said Southern Education Foundation vice president Steve Suitts, the study author.

Hank Bounds, Mississippi's commissioner of higher education, said the nation needs to figure out how to educate the growing classes of poor students and reverse the trend. "Lots of folks say we need to change this paradigm, but as a country, we're not focusing on the issue," said Mr. Bounds, previously state school superintendent. "What we're doing is not working. We need to get philanthropies, the feds, business leaders -- everybody -- together and figure this out. We need another Sputnik moment."

National efforts to improve public education, from the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind to President Barack Obama's Race to the Top, have been focused on the wrong problems, said Richard Rothstein, a senior fellow at the Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. Most of those changes -- including more standardized tests, holding teachers accountable for student academic performance and rewriting math and reading standards -- don't address poverty, he said.

"If you take children who come to school from families with low literacy, who are not read to at home, who have poor health -- all these social and economic problems -- and just say that you're going to test children and have high expectations and [assume that] their achievement will go up, it doesn't work," Mr. Rothstein said. "It's a failure."

Instead, schools must adapt to the new low-income majorities, the foundation's Mr. Suitts said. "We have an education system that continues to assume that most of our students are middle class and have independent resources outside the schools in order to support their education," he said. "The trends and facts belie that assumption. We can't continue to educate kids on an assumption that is 20 years out of date. We simply have to reshape our educational system."

Policymakers, politicians and educators should reconsider the $500 billion the nation spends annually on K-12 education, making smarter investments to help poor children, Mr. Suitts said. Because they show up for kindergarten with a working vocabulary half as large as their more privileged peers, low-income children should be enrolled in quality preschool, he said.

Poor children also need more time in school -- an extended day or school year -- and health care as well as social and emotional support, Mr. Suitts said.

On average, the nation spends about $10,300 annually per student, but that figure varies wildly among states and even within school districts.

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First Published October 17, 2013 8:00 PM


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