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South's public school children are now mainly low income

For the first time in 40 years, more than half of public school students in the South are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

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The plight of the South's school-reform movement now hangs on kids from families that make less than $36,000 a year.

For the first time in 40 years, two new studies show, more than half of public school students in the South are eligible for free or reduced lunch – a watershed moment in a 15-year wealth slide that comes amid resurging racial and economic inequalities in the former Confederacy. The rise is part of a nationwide surge: Low-income students now represent 12 percentage points more of the student body than in 1990.

In response, schools from the Delta's cypress region to the Carolina pine flats face a struggle: How to continue to improve test scores, attract good teachers, and reduce dropout rates amid growth of a group of students whom studies show have greater difficulty reaching grade-level benchmarks?

"Measuring low-income students' success is now measuring the majority of students' success," says Steve Suitts, co-author of "A New Majority," a study released Tuesday by the Southern Education Fund (SEF) in Atlanta.

Nationwide, two overarching factors seem to be driving public-school woes, experts say: In recent years, the erosion of middle-class, blue-collar jobs has led to more people working for lower wages, and many parents who can afford private school have taken their children out of public schools altogether. This skews the average income of remaining families lower. The South in particular has been hard hit by the closing of textile plants in South Carolina and the changing coal economy of the Appalachian highlands. Another reason for the shift, some experts note, is the influx of poorer Latinos at least into the Carolinas and Georgia.

From one state to 13

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