The number of states whose public school populations are mostly made up of poor people quadrupled from 2001 to 2011. Students poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches were a majority of the school population in 17 states across the South and the West in 2011, according to a new study from the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), compared to four states with majorities of poor students a decade before.
SEF uses school lunch programs as a stand-in for poverty “because a family of four could earn no more than $40,793 a year to qualify in 2011,” the Washington Post explained. The proportion of low-income students ranges from half (in North Carolina and Texas) to over two-thirds (66 percent in Louisiana, 68 percent in New Mexico, and 71 percent in Mississippi), according to the report. Four of the 17 states are in the West, and the other 13 are in the South.
The South and West also spend substantially less on students — just above $9,000 per public school pupil — than the Midwest ($10,771) or Northeast ($16,045). SEF reports that 48 percent of all students nationwide are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, with 40 percent eligible in the Northeast and 44 percent eligible in the Midwest. “Within the next few years,” the report’s conclusion notes, “it is likely that low income students will become a majority of all public school children in the United States.”
The school system is less likely to provide an adequate level of education for poorer students, with SEF finding that while reading scores for fourth graders in the South have improved since 2003, the gap between low- and high-income student achievement has not narrowed in any region save for the Northeast. The persistent linkage between income and educational outcomes suggests that the country needs to make major reforms to school funding and educational practices rather than simply shuffling poor kids off to private schools, according to the report’s authors. “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,” they write.