When Most U.S. School Kids Are Poor

Beware the impact on lifelong earnings, health, and democracy when 48 percent (and rising) of students in public schools are from low-income families.

Government Assistance Programs Aid Underprivileged Communities In New York State WOODBOURNE, NY - SEPTEMBER 20: Children recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the school day at the federally-funded Head Start school on September 20, 2012 in Woodbourne, New York. The school provides early education, nutrition and health services to 311 children from birth through age 5 from low-income families in Sullivan County, one of the poorest counties in the state of New York. The county Head Start Program was expanded with a $1 million grant from President Obama's 2009 stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Head Start, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the longest-running early education program for children of low-income families in the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
National Journal
Katherine Dunn
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Katherine Dunn
Nov. 5, 2013, 1 a.m.

A ma­jor­ity of pub­lic-school chil­dren in the South and West are poor for the first time in four dec­ades, the South­ern Edu­ca­tion Found­a­tion re­por­ted in its new study, “A New Ma­jor­ity.”

In the 2010-11 school year, more than half of the stu­dents in 17 states qual­i­fied for free or re­duced price lunches. And across the coun­try, nearly half — 48 per­cent — of pub­lic-school chil­dren were low in­come. When the lan­guage gap between low-in­come and high­er-in­come stu­dents be­gins as early as 18 months, this demo­graph­ic shift has big im­plic­a­tions for the suc­cess of our na­tion’s stu­dents. Al­most half of U.S. pub­lic-school stu­dents may be ar­riv­ing at school for the first time already be­hind — with high­er chances of fall­ing fur­ther be­hind aca­dem­ic­ally, hav­ing lower test scores, drop­ping out, or be­ing “pushed out” — a find­ing of the Dig­nity in Schools Cam­paign.

The re­port found that while the num­ber of low-in­come stu­dents is grow­ing rap­idly, fund­ing for their edu­ca­tion is not, and learn­ing gaps between low-in­come stu­dents and their high­er-in­come peers have per­sisted.

Kath­er­ine Dunn is a pro­gram of­ficer with the South­ern Edu­ca­tion Found­a­tion, a pub­lic char­ity based in At­lanta.

Across all re­gions of the coun­try, the num­ber of poor stu­dents in U.S. pub­lic schools has grown sub­stan­tially over the past dec­ade — by 32 per­cent na­tion­wide from 2001 to 2011, or more than 5.7 mil­lion chil­dren. Cer­tainly the 2008 re­ces­sion com­poun­ded this high growth.

The re­ces­sion also con­trib­uted to both budget cuts to pub­lic edu­ca­tion and to de­clin­ing prop­erty val­ues, re­du­cing tax rev­en­ue for pub­lic schools. In fact, while schools are edu­cat­ing more and more low-in­come stu­dents, fund­ing per stu­dent is grow­ing at a much slower rate — mean­ing few­er re­sources for stu­dents who re­quire great­er sup­port. Poor pub­lic-school chil­dren were most con­cen­trated in U.S. cit­ies, where urb­an schools edu­cate large pop­u­la­tions of stu­dents with the greatest needs.

Mean­while, sig­ni­fic­ant learn­ing gaps between low-in­come stu­dents and their high­er-in­come peers re­mained. (Between the two stu­dent groups from 2003 to 2011, the gap in fourth-grade read­ing scores for the Na­tion­al As­sess­ment for Edu­ca­tion­al Pro­gress held steady at 26 points.) Neither the pub­lic nor the private sec­tor has suc­cess­fully re­duced or elim­in­ated the learn­ing gap for poor stu­dents: Sim­il­ar gaps per­sisted in both pub­lic and private schools.

As low-in­come stu­dents be­come our “new ma­jor­ity,” our in­ter­na­tion­al stand­ing hinges on im­prov­ing our edu­ca­tion of these stu­dents. A re­cent re­port on an in­ter­na­tion­al rank­ing of math and sci­ence scores in 2011 showed be­low-av­er­age scores in many South­ern states — the re­gion with the greatest con­cen­tra­tion of low-in­come stu­dents (and a ma­jor­ity of poor pub­lic-school stu­dents since 2007).

To re­verse these trends, we must ad­dress the needs of low-in­come stu­dents. As New York Uni­versity edu­ca­tion pro­fess­or Pedro Noguera has writ­ten, we can­not ex­pect chil­dren to per­form well aca­dem­ic­ally when they do not have ad­equate nu­tri­tion, health care, and de­vel­op­ment­al tools, and we can­not ex­pect fam­il­ies to break the cycle of poverty without qual­ity edu­ca­tion.

Edu­ca­tion is the av­en­ue to mean­ing­ful ca­reers, ad­equate wages, par­ti­cip­a­tion in our demo­cracy, and safe, healthy lives. But edu­ca­tion that pro­duces these res­ults re­quires that we spend more to edu­cate our stu­dents. We must provide high-qual­ity teach­ers, small class sizes, coun­selors, nurses, and an en­ga­ging cur­riculum — and we must reach our stu­dents with these re­sources earli­er, through qual­ity early edu­ca­tion.

Ul­ti­mately, the de­cision comes down to wheth­er we want to in­vest a little at the front end, or a lot at the back end — when our fail­ure to provide equit­able edu­ca­tion to low-in­come stu­dents will mean gen­er­a­tions of poverty and a “new ma­jor­ity” of poor stu­dents in South­ern and West­ern pub­lic schools that will be­come our na­tion’s status quo.

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