Lyndsey Layton, Washington Post, October 16, 2013
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.
Southern states have seen rising numbers of poor students for the past decade, but the trend spread west in 2011, to include rapidly increasing levels of poverty among students in California, Nevada, Oregon and New Mexico.
The 2008 recession, immigration and a high birthrate among low-income families have largely fueled the changes, said Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation and an author of the study.
On average, the country spends about $10,300 annually per student, but that figure varies wildly among states and even within school districts. In 2011, for instance, New York spent $19,076 for each student, while Utah spent $6,212.