A new study reveals that a majority of students in public schools in the South and West of America are low-income for the first time in at least four decades. The study, conducted by the Southern Education Foundation, 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.
According to researchers, children from low-income families dominated classrooms in 13 states in the South and the four Western states with the largest populations in 2011, according to Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post.
Only four states reported poor children as a majority of the student population in their public schools a decade earlier. By 2011, about 48% of the nation's 50 million public-school students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. In Mississippi, the number rose as high as 71%.
"This is incredible," said Michael A. 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."
The study found that for the past decade, southern states have rising numbers of poor students, but the trend spread west in 2011 to include rapidly increasing levels of poverty among students in California, Nevada, Oregon and New Mexico.
According to Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation and an author of the study, said the 2008 recession, immigration and a high birthrate among low-income families have largely fueled the changes.
In the south, researchers found that Maryland and Virginia were the only states where low-income children did not make up a majority of public-school students. About one-third of students in public schools in Maryland and Virginia qualified for the free and reduced meals program in 2011.
Richard Rothstein, a senior fellow at the Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, said national efforts to improve public education have been focused on the wrong problems. According to Rothstein, standardized testing, new teachers accountability systems and rewriting math and reading standards do not address poverty.
Suitts urged policymakers, politicians and educators to reconsider the $500 billion the nation spends annually on K-12 education, with an eye toward smarter investments to help poor children.
"We have to do something different by the way we educate, but we do it by understanding who are the students and what are the needs," Suitts said.