Southern Education Foundation says majority in public schools in South and West now live below, on or near poverty line
For the first time since the 1960s, a majority of the children in public schools in the South and West of the United States come from families living below, at or not far above the poverty line, according to a new study. The study's findings are part of a trend that is set to continue across the nation.
While the percentage of low-income students in public schools has grown across the nation over the last 20 years, there are now 17 states in which they represent the majority. Thirteen of those states are in the South; four are in the West.
The report, which was released this month by the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), a nonprofit group supporting education improvement, also found that schools with the largest proportion of low-income children spent the least in support of students.
A decade ago, only four states reported that a majority of children in their classrooms came from low-income families. But since 2001, the number of poor students has grown by 32% nationwide; in the same time, national expenditure on public schooling has increased by only 14%. The report warns that the "nation has not adjusted its support for public schools to reflect the educational challenges that these developments bring", and notes that poor students are more likely to score lower on test scores and to fall behind, and thus to need more assistance.
The study's authors focused on the 2010-2011 school year and used the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price school meals as a benchmark. Free meals are available to children from families with incomes below 130% of the federal poverty line; students whose household income is up to 185% of the poverty line can get reduced-price meals. Forty-eight per cent of all children in US public schools, from preschool to 12th grade, now meet either of these stipulations.
Steve Suitts, vice-president of the Southern Education Foundation and the report's author, said: "With huge stubborn 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 the haves and the have-nots and endanger the entire nation's prospects."
Suitts said the demographic shift had been fuelled by three factors: high unemployment and an increase in lower-wage jobs; immigration; and a falling birthrate among middle-income families over the last 20 years.
Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University, said of the report: "Unfortunately it is not a shock. This is a trend we've known about for a while. A few years ago, we saw it in California and now the South and West."
Rebell also said that the current model of American public schools assumes a majority of students from middle-income families who have access to activities and support outside school that will help with their education. He believes that what is needed is a re-orientation of policy to address the new demographic reality, including a recognition that more needs to be done in early childhood, at pre-school level.
"The reality is that the American school system has to re-orientate to the fact that the majority of students come from low-income backgrounds," he said. "Policy does not reflect that fact."
In July, a report by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which develops standardized tests, noted that despite US wealth, of the world's 35 richest nations it ranks second-highest in child poverty. The study's authors estimated that the nation's problems with child poverty ultimately cost it $500bn a year. Richard Coley, executive director of the ETS center for research, human capital and education, said the SEF study should be a call to action.
"If we don't wake up in this country and deal with it we are going to pay the price," he said. "The problem is that the skills that these kids need are getting more complex. It's going to make the US less competitive."
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