WASHINGTON — For the first time in more than 40 years, the majority of children in public schools in the South are poor, according to a report released Tuesday.
In 11 Southern states, including Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, a significant increase in the number of poor children attending public school has sent district officials scurrying for solutions on how to best educate kids who are coming from economically disadvantaged homes.
"The future of the South's ability to have an educated population is going to depend on how well we can improve these students' education," said Steve Suitts, a program coordinator with the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, a non-profit organization that focuses on Southern educational issues and conducted the study.
In places like Memphis, where roughly 80 percent of students come from low-income homes, that has meant adopting models that address teaching children in poverty. In Miami-Dade, where 61 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunch, that has meant strengthening efforts to improve all students' math and reading scores and curb dropout rates.
"The reason this presents a profound challenge for us is that low-income students as a group begin school least ready," Suitts said. "They are the students most likely to drop out of school. They perform at the lowest levels on tests that decide graduation and advancement. They have the least access to college."
Twenty years ago, Mississippi was the only state in the country with such a high percentage of poor public school students. However, as textile mills shut down in the Carolinas, Appalachian coal mines cut workers and a recession swept the nation, families in the South were especially hard hit, the Southern Education Foundation report found.
Also hitting the South disproportionately were federal cutbacks in anti-poverty programs, the region's higher rates of underemployment and the increased birthrates of Hispanic and African American children — who are statistically more likely than their white peers to be born into poverty.
Now, a majority of public school students are considered low income in a total of 14 states, including 11 in the South. The South shows tremendous variability, with 84 percent of students considered low-income in Louisiana, 75 percent in Mississippi, 62 percent in Florida, 49 percent in North Carolina, but only 33 percent in Virginia.
According to the report, public schools in the West may face similar problems in the next five to seven years. Already 51 percent of public school children in California and 62 percent of those in New Mexico are considered low income.
All told, the report said, 54 percent of students in Southern states are judged to be poor, a significant increase from the 37 percent so classified in the late 1980s. Nationally, 46 percent of public school students are low-income.
According to 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores, lower-income fourth and eighth graders lagged 20 to 30 points behind their peers on math and reading tests. Poor, Southern students who make up the majority of their states' student populations also have lower college attendance rates than their peers, the Southern Education Foundation report found.
Further complicating matters is the fact that, as a region, the South spends less per pupil on education than do other parts of the country.
In 2000, Mississippi's highest per pupil expenditures were $5,631. Connecticut's lowest per pupil expenditure for the same year was $8,030.
"The South historically was just a poorer part of the country and didn't have the focus on education that other parts of the country had," said Jeff Kuhner, a spokesman for the Fordham Foundation, an education think tank in Washington. "Part of its strategy for the past 25 to 30 years has been cheap, undereducated labor, they don't have labor unions. But human capital is just as important as investment capital."
One Southern strategy gaining momentum is strengthening early-childhood education. In at at least 12 Southern states, including Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi, the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in state pre-K programs or Head Start is greater than the number of 4-year-olds in poverty, according to the Southern Regional Education Board.
Proponents hope that early childhood education will help all students, regardless of income level, succeed.