South's public school children are now mainly low income

For the first time in 40 years, more than half of public school students in the South are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

The plight of the South's school-reform movement now hangs on kids from families that make less than $36,000 a year.

For the first time in 40 years, two new studies show, more than half of public school students in the South are eligible for free or reduced lunch – a watershed moment in a 15-year wealth slide that comes amid resurging racial and economic inequalities in the former Confederacy. The rise is part of a nationwide surge: Low-income students now represent 12 percentage points more of the student body than in 1990.

In response, schools from the Delta's cypress region to the Carolina pine flats face a struggle: How to continue to improve test scores, attract good teachers, and reduce dropout rates amid growth of a group of students whom studies show have greater difficulty reaching grade-level benchmarks?

"Measuring low-income students' success is now measuring the majority of students' success," says Steve Suitts, co-author of "A New Majority," a study released Tuesday by the Southern Education Fund (SEF) in Atlanta.

Nationwide, two overarching factors seem to be driving public-school woes, experts say: In recent years, the erosion of middle-class, blue-collar jobs has led to more people working for lower wages, and many parents who can afford private school have taken their children out of public schools altogether. This skews the average income of remaining families lower. The South in particular has been hard hit by the closing of textile plants in South Carolina and the changing coal economy of the Appalachian highlands. Another reason for the shift, some experts note, is the influx of poorer Latinos at least into the Carolinas and Georgia.

From one state to 13

In 1989, Mississippi was the only state with a majority of students who needed free or reduced lunch, according to the SEF study. In 2006, 13 states had a majority of low-income students, 11 of them in the South. The only states in the South unlikely to hit the tipping point are Virginia, with 33 percent, and Maryland, at 31 percent. (North Carolina hovered at 49 percent last year.)

Some 54 percent of students in the region come from families who make less than $36,000 annually, the cutoff point to qualify for free or reduced lunch, compared with a national average of 46 percent.

"Something has happened in the nation from 1990 to 2006, where our economic base has gotten more bottom-heavy," says Joan Lord, vice president for education policy at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, which released its own study this week that found the same phenomenon.

This is not to say that lower income automatically equals lower grades. Some of the best public high schools in the nation, many of them racially and economically integrated, are in the South. But in aggregate, the disparities are apparent. In Alabama, for instance, 43 percent of low-income students scored below basic, the lowest passing classification, on the 2007 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) math test, compared with 14 percent of students with incomes above $36,000.

What's more, studies show that low-income students are more likely to be held back in first and second grade and more likely to drop out of high school.

Those who do graduate from high school are less likely to go on to get a college degree.

"I think this data brings home why progress has been slow in improving education achievement in the South," says Cynthia Brown, a school policy expert at the Center for American Progress.

Many Southerners say the erosion of wealth in the public schools also reveals deeply ingrained attitudes in the South, where strong legislatures, weak governors, fiscal conservatism, and racial stereotypes stymie school progress. "I don't know how many times I've heard that public schools are really for the black kids," says Neal Thigpen, a political scientist at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C.

The civil rights era challenge to raise up black people through education is at stake, says William Taylor, chairman of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights in Washington. "If we're going to figure out how to get out of it, we have to figure out ways to change the dynamics."

Some school districts are implementing a variety of solutions. In Miami-Dade County, school officials are setting up "parent academies" in local churches and community halls in an attempt to make education a higher priority for families.

In Perry County, Ala., predominantly black schools with 80 percent low-income students regularly graduate 90 percent of their high-schoolers. Teaching the basics and character education are part of that success, residents there say.

Rise of resegregation

In some cases, districts that once sought to integrate feel they must re-embrace resegregation as a way to keep the public schools intact. Tuscaloosa, Ala., recently rezoned its middle schools, effectively ending the busing of black city kids to a suburban school.

School board member Ernestine Tucker, who voted against the plan, said the threat from white parents was implicit but obvious: "Rezone, or we pull our kids out of the public schools." "The only difference there is they have options," she says. "We don't have the same options."

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