A new study from the Southern Education Foundation has found that more than half of US public school students are from low-income families.
The report, A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South and Nation, found 51% of students in pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade in 17 states were eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program in the 2012-13 school year. The majority — 13 — of those states were in the South. The remaining 4 were in the West.
More than half of students in the Southern US have come from low-income households since 2005.
The largest percentages of these students were found in Mississippi at 71%, New Mexico at 68%, and Louisiana at 66%. Oklahoma and Arkansas were also found to have over 60% of their students residing in low-income households.
The increase in the number of needy children in the nation has commanded increased attention of educators, public officials and researchers. The increase means that there are more students entering kindergarten behind their more affluent peers, in some cases remaining behind for their entire educational careers. In addition, low-income students are less likely to receive support from their parents, have less access to after-school activities, and are more likely to drop out or never attend college in the first place, writes Lyndsey Layton for The Washington Post.
"We've all known this was the trend, that we would get to a majority, but it's here sooner rather than later," said Michael A. Rebell of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College at Columbia University, noting that the poverty rate has been increasing even as the economy has improved. "A lot of people at the top are doing much better, but the people at the bottom are not doing better at all. Those are the people who have the most children and send their children to public school."
According to Carey Wright, Mississippi's state superintendent of education, a quality preschool education is the key to changing things around for children in need.
"That's huge," she said. "These children can learn at the highest levels, but you have to provide for them. You can't assume they have books at home, or they visit the library or go on vacations. You have to think about what you're doing across the state and ensuring they're getting what other children get."
The report suggests that not enough money is being spent by individual states or the federal government in an effort to help low-income students.
The Obama administration is asking Congress to add an extra $1 billion to the $14.4 billion budget it gives to states each year to help educate poor children. In addition, it is asking Congress to fund a preschool education for low-income families. Currently, about $500 billion is spent each year between the states and the federal government on primary and secondary schools, with around $79 billion of that coming from Washington.
However, many Republicans believe that additional funding is not the answer. Instead, they are pushing for tax dollars to be given to low-income families to be used as vouchers for private school tuition. It is their belief that these schools are better than public schools.
"We have to think about how to give these kids a meaningful education," Rebell said. "We have to give them quality teachers, small class sizes, up-to-date equipment. But in addition, if we're serious, we have to do things that overcome the damages of poverty.