South leads country in number of poor students in public schools

Published 4:39 pm Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The South is headed for an economic crisis if states don’t begin investing more to help poor children succeed in school, according to a new report released Tuesday.

A majority of students enrolled in public schools across 15 Southern states are now low income — a situation last seen in the 1950s and 60s — and states are not doing enough to make sure they graduate from high school and go on to college, a report from the Southern Education Foundation shows.

The report is the first time the 140-year-old Atlanta-based nonprofit has taken a region-wide look at issues affecting the future prosperity of the South.

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“We are essentially setting up the South for failure,” said Steve Suitts, the report’s author and program coordinator for the foundation. “If we don’t find a way to educate more students, we’re not going to have a prosperous future in this region no matter how much the sun may shine.”

Today blue collar jobs that once didn’t even require a high school diploma now call for some postsecondary training, and companies that want to relocate look for areas with good schools and an educated work force, he said. People who have a high school diploma or less can still get jobs — but they tend be low wage jobs that won’t help raise them out of poverty, Suitts said.

That means the South is headed toward a weak economy with an undereducated population, high unemployment rates and high poverty, Suitts said.

Low income students are children whose family income qualifies them for free and reduced meals at school.

Poor students tend not to be as ready for kindergarten, are more likely to repeat a grade and are less likely to graduate from high school than their wealthier classmates. They perform worse than higher income students on state and national exams measuring educational progress.

Schools across the South spend less per pupil than other areas of the country, which means the students who need the extra tutoring and guidance aren’t getting it, according to the report.

States like Connecticut — with just 29 percent low income enrollment — spend up to $11,600 on each student, according to the report. But Mississippi, where low-income enrollment is 75 percent, spends just $5,600 per student, the report states.

Southern states tax for education at the same rates other regions of the country do, but the South’s higher poverty rates translate into less taxable income and less revenue to invest in education, Suitts said.

The Southern trend of enrolling more poor students than the rest of the nation is not new. But in recent years, the flood of Hispanic immigrants moving into the South coupled with high birth rates among poor minorities have sent low-income enrollment numbers through the roof, Suitts said.

In 2006, 54 percent of students enrolled in public schools in the South were low income, up from 37 percent just 16 years ago. The percentage broke 50 percent in 2004. The last time the majority of students were poor in Southern schools was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Suitts said.

Nationally, 46 percent of students are low income. The Northeast and Midwest enrolled just 36 percent poor children, and the West had 47 percent low-income students, the study shows.

The South also had the highest overall public school enrollment with 18 million students, compared to 11 million in the West and Midwest and 8.5 million in the Northeast.

Louisiana had the highest rate of poor students with 84 percent. Mississippi wasn’t far behind with 75 percent.

New Hampshire had the lowest rate in the country with just 20 percent. North Dakota was second with just 26 percent.

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