Confronting a low-income crisis in U.S. schools

ssuitts2The number of U.S. students who come from low-income families has long been the metaphorical elephant in the room when it comes to education funding. But, according to a new report by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, it’s a problem that can no longer be ignored.
For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of our public school students fall into that low-income category. For Steve Suitts, vice president of the foundation, the alarming trend is that the increase of low-income students is now occurring in regions where it had not been before.
“While found in large proportions throughout the United States, the numbers of low-income students attending public schools in the South and in the West are extraordinarily high,” Suitts wrote in the report. “Thirteen of the 21 states with a majority of low-income students in 2013 were located in the South, and six of the other 21 states were in the West.

Let’s begin with a definition of low-income. That doesn’t necessarily mean poverty does it?
That’s right. We found that 51 percent of students in 2013 were receiving free and reduced lunch. Now, the reduced lunch part of that means that the folks are eligible up to 185 percent of the poverty level. Those who receive free lunch are about 135 percent of the poverty level.
So, we say that these are students in and near poverty. That’s the most accurate way of expressing who these low-income students are.

The economy has improved since the 2008 recession. Are you surprised your numbers show an increase in low-income students?
The slow improvements in the economy haven’t slowed this growth. So far it doesn’t seem to have had a great deal of impact. That’s probably understandable given the fact that we’ve seen little growth or a decline in growth in lower-income job and wage earnings.

Do you expect it to get better, worse or remain stagnant?
Until we see a major increase in the wages or the other income of families and households in the bottom quartile of the economy, I don’t think we are going to see these numbers change. And there has been no real change in those numbers either from the Department of Labor or from the Census Bureau’s reports so far.
So I think this is a reflection of the economy, and also a reflection of the particular households that are in that lower quartile of the economy. These are increasingly single-parent households. They are increasingly households that are with children of color. And these are households whose incomes are just stagnant, if not declining.
That’s where it compounds the problem, generally speaking, that the students with the greatest need, these low-income students, are the ones that are provided the least resources.

When it comes to school funding, there’s a growing influence from the so-called school choice movement, but your report indicates that school choice doesn’t seem to play a role in closing learning gaps.
It really is a stunning fact in many ways. Most proposals for adopting public funding of private schools argue that it’s going to give low-income students a chance to get a better education by moving them out of “failing public schools” to successful private schools.
The best current data we have in the country—the NAEP report on student achievement—just doesn’t show that private schools do any better job at closing the gap than public schools are doing. It’s a big challenge for all schools.
So simply giving a low-income student a choice to go to private school is not going to improve their performance in relationship to higher-income students.
School choice is not about low-income students performing at higher levels. It’s about someone who wants to reshape and redefine education. School choice proponents operate on the theory that private entities can provide better education than public entities. That’s a philosophical doctrine position, not a point of evidence.

Are there any states or regions where the numbers of low-income students have grown dramatically?
In most cases it’s pretty much a steady march. What surprises me from our analysis of our earlier report is how widespread this trend is in all parts of every state.
Clearly, low-income students are more concentrated in the central cities. But if you look at our data from 2011, you also see that 40 percent of the students in the suburbs are low-income and 52 percent in the smaller towns.
What I think is pretty evident is that this whole problem within states cannot be simply dismissed as a big city problem or an isolated rural problem. Those are places where it often is the most striking. But when you have two out of five of your students in suburban schools who are low-income, you have a problem which is everybody’s problem.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, one could have said that the problem was something that only parts of different states—and the school districts in those areas—would have to deal with. But if you look at the numbers in Georgia, for example, we now have two-thirds of the schools across the state with a majority of low-income students.
That pretty well means that it’s an issue that every part of the education community and every community in a state is going to have to address if it wants to be successful.

What does this mean for our economy and how we compete globally?
We can no longer look at low-income students as being a part of our student body whose performance is unfortunate for them, but is also not a major factor in where this nation will go in coming years and in future generations.
When a majority of your students are low income, and when low-income students are performing at the lower levels by almost all indicators, then what you have is a situation where a majority of the students will not perform at higher levels until low-income students become a great focus of education.
The nation is simply not going to have a well-educated citizenry for performing the kind of work that a high tech, high education economy requires. And we’re not going to have the quality of life that we want, that we want our children to have. And we’re not going to have an improvement in the standards of living either.
Unless Americans are willing to compete on the basis of cheap labor— uneducated cheap labor—then the United States has to figure out how low-income students can perform at higher levels for the national interest.

Are you optimistic about how candidates might address this in the 2016 election?
Education gets a lot of lip service but not a lot of focused attention in the electoral process at the federal and the state levels. The kind of positions that are taken and the kind of questions that are asked of candidates about education simply are uninformative in terms of the problems that schools face.
Our political system simply hasn’t yet focused on how important this issue is for the future of the country. Until it does, I don’t know that we’re going to get the kind of policies that we need.

Do you see a way that this trend can reverse?
There are two ways we can deal with this situation if we are willing to—and they probably need to be done in combination.
One is we can figure out ways in which parents can earn more money and provide their kids the kind of educational experiences in and out of school that we know that higher-income families provide for their children. Those kids are doing very well in public schools in the United States—those upper-middle-class kids.
We need to find ways to improve the income of low-income families so that they can begin to provide those kind of resources to their children’s education.
And we can try to have schools and communities provide low-income kids the kind of educational experiences that upper- middle-class kids receive. We know the advantages of early childhood education. We know that exposure to books and language—and to the kind of early learning experiences that parents and communities can provide—will help low-income kids not be so far behind.
And I think we can find ways in which to provide that to low-income kids—if we have the policies and national commitment to do so.

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