For the first time in years, most public-school students in the South and the West are considered poor, according to a new study by the Southern Education Foundation.
, based on the number of students from preschool through 12th grade who are eligible for the federal free and low-cost meals program, found a majority of public school children in 17 out of the 50 states were low-income students in the school year that ended in 2011. Thirteen of the 17 states were in the South and the remaining four were in the West.
That is a dramatic difference from a decade earlier, when poor children dominated classrooms in just four states.
While at least half of the South's public-school children since 2005 have been from low- income households during the 2009-10 and school years ending in 2010 and 2011, according to the study, for the first time in modern history the West had a majority of low income students attending P-12 public schools.
The data also showed that by 2011, low income students comprise nearly half, 48 percent, of the nation's public school children. In Mississippi, that proportion rose as high as 71 percent.
Hank Bounds, the Mississippi commissioner of higher education, said the country needs to figure out how to reverse the trend.
"Lots of folks say we need to change this paradigm, but as a country, we're not focusing on the issue," he told The Washington Post
"What we're doing is not working. We need to get philanthropies, the feds, business leaders, everybody, together and figure this out. We need another Sputnik moment."
, including the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind and President Barack Obama's Race to the Top, take the wrong approach because they don't address the issue of poverty, according to Richard Rothstein of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California at Berkeley.
"If you take children who come to school from families with low literacy, who are not read to at home, who have poor health — and just say that you're going to test children and have high expectations and their achievement will go up, it doesn't work," he told the Post.
Indeed, the education system has to adapt to the new demographics, argues Steve Suitts, vice president of the Southern Education Foundation and an author of the study.
"No longer can we consider the problems and needs of low income students simply a matter of fairness. Their success of failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future," he wrote.
"Without improving the educational support that the nation provides its low income students—students with the largest needs and usually with the least support—the trends of the last decade will be prologue for a nation not at risk, but a nation in decline."
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