The South hit a demographic turning point over the past couple of years, becoming the first U.S. region in which both low-income and minority students constitute a majority of public school enrollment, an Atlanta-based advocacy group says.
In a report released this month, the Southern Education Foundation says the demographic shift was fueled by a combination of factors: an influx of Latinos and members of other ethnic groups, a return of many African-American families to the South, and higher birthrates among both blacks and Latinos than among whites.
Children from families poor enough to qualify for the federally subsidized school meals program have made up a majority of public school enrollment since 2007, according to the foundation. (“South’s Schools Pass Milestone on Poverty,” Nov. 7, 2007.)
But the shift in the proportion of minority schoolchildren is more recent. Depending on how multiracial children are counted, children from traditional minority groups became the majority enrollment in either 2008 or 2009, according to Steve Suitts, the report’s main author.
The changeover in the region, he said, portends similar demographic changes for the nation’s public schools as a whole. Students from minority groups already make up a majority of the public school enrollment in the West, for example.
Children from minority groups became the majority enrollment in the public schools of 15 states studied over the past couple of years.
SOURCE: Southern Education Foundation
“I think the South is probably eight to 10 years ahead of the rest of the country,” Mr. Suitts said.
Such shifts carry enormous implications for schools, and particularly so in the South.
Despite rapid gains in some Southern states in recent years, the region lags behind the rest of the country on most measures of education success, the report says. The growth in the numbers of minority and low-income students—groups that both score below average on standardized tests and drop out more often than white and more-affluent students—threatens to widen the gap between the South and the rest of the nation, according to the study.
The South also ranks below average, it says, in per-pupil funding for disadvantaged students.
“If urgent measures are not taken to enhance public education inputs and outcomes,” the report warns, “the South and the nation will have an underclass the likes of which it has not seen.”
The authors found that public schools in four of the 15 Southern states studied—Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas—now have majority enrollments of both low-income and minority pupils. Only one state in the region, Virginia, has neither.
In five other Southern states, students of color account for more than 40 percent of the public school population.
While public school enrollments as a whole may be more diverse across the South than was once the case, the report also notes, that doesn’t mean students are all attending well-integrated schools. A report from the Pew Hispanic Center, based in Washington, found that 20 percent of Hispanic students across the South in 2006 attended schools where 90 percent of their peers were also Hispanic.
In some of the larger cities in the South, school districts and courts have begun to dismantle school desegregation orders, said Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. He said many of those actions follow a 2007 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that limited the use of race in pupil-assignment plans.
“I think the biggest things schools need to think about in light of these trends are: Can schools afford to not have any kinds of efforts to integrate kids? And how do we get out of the black-white way of thinking about these issues and think about a three-race South?” he said.
In North Carolina and Georgia, for example, Hispanic students now number one out of every 10 students in the public schools, up from just one in 200 in 1986.
Alan Richard, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, a school improvement group created by governors and legislators in 16 states, said the demographic change in the region’s schools was not unexpected.
“It’s right to point out the shifts,” he said of the Southern Education Foundation’s report, “but it’s something that Southern governors already know and have been working to address.”
Meeting in 2005, he said, the region’s governors committed to a series of goals to spur educational progress. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Maryland have been among the states where poor and minority students have shown the most improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics.
Harold L. Hodgkinson, a demographer who specializes in education, noted that the region has led the country in the number of children enrolled in preschools. Given the recession, it’s an open question whether Southern states will be able to keep up those and other improvement efforts.
“Since education accounts for between half to 60 percent of most state budgets,” Mr. Suitts said, “it’s going to be a primary target for most major state cuts.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Public Schools in South Said First With Both Poor, Minority Majority