A majority of students in public schools throughout the American South and West are low-income for the first time in at least four decades, according to a new study that details a demographic shift with broad implications for the country.
The analysis by the Southern Education Foundation, the nation's oldest education philanthropy, is based on the number of students from preschool through 12th grade who were eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals program in the 2010-11 school year.
The meals program run by the Department of Agriculture is a rough proxy for poverty, because a family of four could earn no more than $40,793 a year to qualify in 2011.
Children from those low-income families dominated classrooms in 13 states in the South and the four Western states with the largest populations in 2011, researchers found. A decade earlier, just four states reported poor children as a majority of the student population in their public schools.
But by 2011, almost half of the nation's 50 million public-school students — 48 percent — qualified for free or reduced-price meals. In some states, such as Mississippi, that proportion rose as high as 71 percent.
In a large swath of the country, classrooms are filling with children who begin kindergarten already behind their more privileged peers, who lack the support
"This is incredible," said Michael Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University, who was struck by the rapid spike in poverty. He said the change helps explain why the United States is lagging in comparison with other countries in international tests.
"When you break down the various test scores, you find the high-income kids, high-achievers are holding their own and more," Rebell said. "It's when you start getting down to schools with a majority of low-income kids that you get astoundingly low scores. Our real problem regarding educational outcomes is not the U.S. overall, it's the growing low-income population."