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Low-Income Students Are Public School Majority in South, Study Finds

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More than half of public schoolchildren in the U.S. South now come from low-income families, according to a new report, which predicts that the nation as a whole could reach the same demographic milestone within a decade if current trends persist.

“What these figures are beginning to tell us is that we’re no longer talking about a small slice of the population when we talk about low-income students,” said Steve T. Suitts, the author of the report, which was released today by the Southern Education Foundation, an Atlanta-based group. “We’re talking in the South about a majority of students and that does have profound implications and challenges for schools.”

According to the report, the South, for the first time in at least 40 years, is the only region in the nation where low-income children constitute a majority of public school students. Overall, the study found that in the 2006-07 school year, 54 percent of students in 15 Southern states examined came from families poor enough to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Under the guidelines for that program, families cannot earn more than 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold—about $31,765 a year for a family of three—to participate.

The report, “A New Majority: Low-Income Students in the South’s Public Schools,” found that such students constitute majorities in public schools in 11 of 15 Southern states and in three states outside the South, namely California, New Mexico, and Oregon. And, if current demographic trends continue, the study forecasts, the Western region will follow suit in three to five years and have a public school population that is also predominantly poor.

“These two regions guide the national pattern and explain why low-income students constitute as much as 46 percent of U.S. public school enrollment,” the report concludes. “If recent rates of growth continue in the South and the West and in two other large states, Illinois and New York, the United States could have a majority of low-income students in public schools within the next 10 years.”

Immigration a Factor

Mr. Suitts said the demographic shifts documented in his report stem from a mix of factors. They include increases in enrollment in Southern schools of Latino and African-American children, both of whom are statistically more likely than white children to be poor. Immigration plays a role in the increase among Latino children, according to the report, but so do the high birth rates among American-born Latino families.

Also, some states—such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, and South Carolina—have experienced persistently high rates of underemployment and the region, as a whole, has suffered from layoffs as manufacturers have moved outside the country in search of a less expensive labor force.

But the South also has a long history of poverty, dating back to at least the Civil War. “Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, and South Carolina have had the nation’s largest shares of children near poverty since the [U.S.] Census Bureau has been keeping count, as have West Virginia and Kentucky,” the report states.

Joan Lord, the vice president for national policies for the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based education reform group, said the trends documented in the Southern Education Foundation report mirror demographic changes taking place nationwide. “From 1990 to 2006, the percentage of low-income children increased by 12 percentage points across the nation. In the South, it increased by 14 percentage points, so it’s not just in the South that this increase is happening.”

“Because the percentage of low-income students in the South was high to begin with,” Ms. Lord added, “with the add-on increases, it’s taken the South over the 50 percent line.” Her organization, which has also been documenting the same demographic patterns in the region, puts the overall percentage of low-income public schoolchildren closer to 53 percent, however.

A Role for Schools

The shifts are important to highlight, nonetheless, Ms. Lord and Mr. Suitts said, because they pose challenges for schools, which are required under the federal No Child Left Behind law to show that they are increasing test scores for all students and for certain subgroups of students, including those who come from low-income families, and because schools can play a role in preventing the perpetuation of a cycle of poverty.

In the South, the report says, that task is especially hard because the region, despite having made some educational progress in recent years, spends less per pupil on K-12 schools than other regions of the country and provides less financial aid to enable the low-income students who graduate from high school to attend college.

“If this new majority of students fail in school,” Mr. Suitts added, “an entire state, an entire region, and—sooner or later—an entire nation will fail simply because there will be inadequate human capital to build and sustain good jobs, an enjoyable quality of life, and a well-informed democracy.”

Vol. 27

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