Crisis of the New Majority: Low-Income Students in the South's Public Schools
Steve Suitts, of the Southern Education Foundation, discusses how low-income households impact public education in the U.S. South.
For the first time in over forty years, low-income children constitute a majority of public school students in the U.S. South. Public schools in the fifteen states designated as southern by the Southern Education Foundation have enrolled a majority of low-income students in each of the last three years.1 Today the South is the only section of the nation where low-income students make up fifty percent or more of public school enrollment.2
In the 2006-07 school year, low-income students constituted fifty-four percent of the South's public school enrollment, while the rest of the nation stood at forty-one percent. In 2005-06, the low-income majority in southern public schools hit fifty-three percent; a year earlier, it was fifty percent. The percentage of low-income students (defined as students eligible for free and reduced lunch) has grown steadily since at least 1989, when low-income children represented thirty-seven percent of the South's students in public schools.
This trend creates a far-reaching crisis. The South is in the throes of a self-perpetuating cycle of financial hardship coupled with lack of education. For example, eighty-two percent of students with a parent who did not receive a high school diploma are growing up in low-income families.
These new-majority students lag far behind wealthier students in school achievement and graduation rates, while southern states provide the least educational support in the nation. The South already has the nation's largest population of adults lacking a high school or college education.
Public school systems in eleven of the fifteen southern states currently enroll a majority of low-income students. In 2006, Louisiana (84%) and Mississippi (75%) had the highest percentages, as in the past. Florida (62%), Texas (56%), Alabama (54%), Arkansas (53%), and Tennessee (53%) followed. In Georgia, South Carolina, and West Virginia, low-income students in each state made up fifty-two percent of public school enrollment, and in Kentucky fifty percent.
Based on recent rates of growth, both North Carolina (49%) and Oklahoma (47%) will soon join the ranks of states with a majority of low-income students. Only Virginia (33%) and Maryland (31%) in the Upper South had a percentage of low-income enrollment in 2006 far below fifty percent.
Elsewhere in the country, only three states — New Mexico, California, and Oregon — had a majority of low-income students. Given recent trends, however, public schools in the western half of the U.S. will emerge with a majority of low-income students within the next five to seven years. Currently, such students constitute forty-six percent of U.S. public school enrollment. Because of regional trends and recent growth rates in Illinois and New York, the United States could have a majority of low-income students in public schools within the next ten years.
Three primary factors account for this recent, unrelenting increase in the South: demographic changes, state economic problems, and a history of persistent poverty and low income.
Several southern states have seen a higher rate of population growth among Latino and African American children, who statistically are more likely than white children to be born into low-income households. In Florida, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina, as well as in New Mexico, California, and a few other states outside the South, an increase in the number of Latino children appears to factor significantly in the rising rate of low-income students. Similarly, a high birth rate among African Americans has contributed to the increased percentages, especially in the Deep South.
Persistently high rates of underemployment in states such as South Carolina and Kentucky have increased the numbers of low-income households, as has a general downturn in wages and real income over the last three decades. Since the Census Bureau started keeping count, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, West Virginia, Kentucky and South Carolina have had the nation's largest rates of children near poverty. From one generation to another, these states have never been far from having a low-income majority among public school students.
Despite a popular misperception, the growth of private school enrollment is not a major influence on the growing population of low-income students in public schools. There has been no major exodus of students to private schools. While private school growth had a notable effect in the 1970s, there is no statistical evidence that such enrollment significantly affects current trends in public schools. From 1997 to 2003, the fifteen-state South studied by SEF registered an increase of about 140,000 private school students and more than 1.2 million public school students. For every student in private school in the South in 2003, ten students attended public schools.
The new majority of southern students demands new public policies. The success or failure of low-income students has enormous repercussions for all, as well as for the viability of an inclusive and well-informed democracy.
1. Available data for 2004-2006. The Southern Education Foundation considers the following states as the U.S. South: Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland.
2. In 2007, according to the federal guidelines, a student living in a family of three persons with an annual income of $22,231 or less was eligible for free lunch; a student with an annual family income of $31,765 or less was eligible for reduced-price lunch.