The Southern Education Foundation ’s latest report, A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South and the Nation, analyzes where low income children go to school, what the trends are for low income in the schools, and what the policy implications of these trends are.
• A majority of public school children in 17 states, one-third of the 50 states across the nation, were low income students – eligible for free or reduced lunches – in the school year that ended in 2011. Thirteen of the 17 states were in the South, and the remaining four were in the West. Since 2005, half or more of the South’s children in public schools have been from low income households.
• Across the entire southern sections of the United States – ranging from the west coast across the Southwest through the Deep South, only in Arizona (45 percent) were low income students less than half of all public school children.
• In 2011, more than two-thirds of African American and Hispanic students in the United States attended public schools where a majority of school children were low income , but white students also constitute a majority of low income public school children in a large number of schools and school districts, especially in the South.
• Four states in the West – New Mexico, California, Oregon, and Nevada – had a majority of low income children in public schools, and, combined with a growing number of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch in recent years across the region’s other nine states, the West had a majority of public school children in 2011.
• Schools that have the largest proportion of low income students spend the least in support of students. In 2011, a majority of school children in both the South and the West were from low income families, and the public school children in the both the South and the West received the least educational resources: both less than $9,300 per pupil. In contrast, public schools in the Northeast, where 40 percent of all students are low income, spend $16,045 per pupil.
• Low income students are more likely than students from wealthier families to have lower tests scores, fall behind in school, dropout, and fail to acquire a college degree.8 These gaps in learning and achievement have not improved in recent years, while the numbers of low income students have escalated in the South and nation.
The report concludes:
The future consequences of these trends are likely to severely undercut the American promise of fairness and equity for children in low income households. That should be concern enough for policymakers in Washington and students constitutes the educational success or failure of a majority of all public school students, our entire nation’s future educational capacity is at stake.
No longer can we consider the problems and needs of low income students simply a matter of fairness. These students are in two regions half or more of all public school children. They were in 2011 a near majority of the nation’s public school children and are continuing to grow in numbers. Their success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future. Without improving the educational support that the nation provides its low income students – students with the largest needs and usually with the least support -- the trends of the last decade will be prologue for a nation not at risk, but a nation in decline.
Within the next few years, it is likely that low income students will become a majority of all public school children in the United States. With huge, stubbornly unchanging gaps in learning, schools in the South and across the nation face the real danger of becoming entrenched, inadequately funded educational systems that enlarge the division in America between haves and have-nots and endanger the entire nation’s prospects.
There is no real evidence that any scheme or policy of transferring large numbers of low income students from public schools to private schools will have a positive impact on this problem.
The trends of the last decade strongly suggest that little or nothing will change for the better if schools and communities continue to postpone addressing the primary question of education in America today: what does it take and what will be done to provide low income students with a good chance to succeed in public schools? It is a question of how, not where, to improve the education of a new majority of students.
Without fundamental improvements in how the South and the nation educate low income students, the trends that this report documents will ricochet across all aspects of American society for generations to come. As a wise American leader once reminded a troubled nation: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”