Monday, October 21, 2013
The Southern Education Foundation's new report, A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South and the Nation, is mind-boggling in its implications for the future of educational equity, educational quality, and integration. We have long known of the suburban-urban divide that stalled integration decades ago, as well as the flight of families with means to private schools. This new report shows that things have gotten worse, really worse. Throughout the south and much of the west, poor students are now the majority of enrolled students statewide. In Mississippi, an eye-popping 71% of public school students are poor. The north and midwest are still majority middle income, but only on a statewide basis. Thirty-eight of 50 states' city schools are majority poor.
This is a new phenomenon. It was not until 2007 that the south's schools become majority poor. The south and other states only crossed over into this territory as a result of enormous growth in poor students between 2001 and 2011. The south saw 33% growth in poor students, the west 31%, the midwest 40% and the northeast 21%. School funding has been woeful during this same period. As SEF's chart below reveals, the northeast is the only place where funding has kept pace with with the growth in the percentage of poor students (although this is not to say it has grown enough there either).
Based on these findings, I see four enormous problems. First, meaningful integration has become even less possible than before. If one accepts the dominant social science findings of the past several decades that attending a middle income school is a major predictor of success, these crucially import schools and districts are disappearing. In other words, there are fewer and fewer people with whom to integrate. Second, the political pressure against integration and for neighborhood schools is going to mount among those middle income families that remain. Although not often talked about, one of the key events in Wake County, North Carolina in the past few years was that it became majority poor. Thus, it is no surprise that this district, which had a long commitment to integration, has seen enormous tensions and took steps to undo integration. In short, Tea Partiers may have flamed the fire in Wake County, but tipping over into a majority poor district started the fire.
Third, funding for schools just became a lot more problematic because the important political base that would otherwise support it is no longer a majority. It has bled off into private schools and wants vouchers and tax breaks, both of which have seen rapid growth in just the past few years. Moreover, another significant chunk of middle income families has left or may leave for charter schools in hopes of isolating themselves at public expense. Either way, support for the traditional public school is in serious jeopardy.
Fourth, the public schools got dumped into a deep hole over the past decade. Most research indicates that poor children require 40% more funding than middle income children to receive an adequate education. Even if we assumed that 2001 levels of funding were adequate, the growth in funding since then has been insufficient to cover the cost of the additional poor children entering public school. But, of course, funding was not adequate in many, if not most, districts in 2001. Thus, school funding has gone from bad to awful.
I wish I could offer constructive thoughts on the way forward, but this report is just too much at the moment. It calls for nothing short of serious, crisis mode conversations about our commitment to public education that very few leaders are willing to have. After all, their constituents are already pursuing other options. A change of course will only occur if they take this report as seriously as I do.