A new report by the Southern Education Foundation reveals that for the first time in 40 years, a majority of public school students throughout the Southern and Western United States are low-income.

The analysis is based on the number of preschool through 12th-grade students who were eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals program in the 2010-11 school year, which requires that a family of four earn no more than $40,793 annually to qualify.

Around 48 percent of the nation’s 50 million public-school students qualify for the program, but the number reaches 53 percent in southern states and 50 percent in western states. Mississippi has the highest percentage, with 71 percent of students in the state qualifying for the meal program. In contrast, 25 percent of New Hampshire students qualify.

Low income students are more likely than students from wealthier families to have low test scores and dropout of school. While programs have been implemented over the past few years to improve education, such as No Child Left Behind, they focus too much on standardized test scores and teacher accountability, leaving poverty and its detrimental effects on academic performance unaddressed.

“We have an education system that continues to assume that most of our students are middle class and have independent resources outside the schools in order to support their education,” said Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation. “The trends and facts belie that assumption. We can’t continue to educate kids on an assumption that is 20 years out of date. We simply have to reshape our educational system.”

The report explains that the 2008 recession likely contributed to the growth in the number of low income students, especially in areas where the housing markets and local economies collapsed, but there has been a steady increase in the number of low income students for a longer period of time.

Media Resources: Southern Education Foundation; The Washington Post 10/16/13

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