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Study Finds 'No Place to Get Away' From Deep Poverty in South, West Schools

Nearly half of all American public school students now live in poverty, and in broad swaths of the South and Southwest, state supports have not kept pace with significant and rapidly rising majorities of poor students in their classrooms.

In 17 states spanning nearly all of the South, Southwest and West Coast, a majority of public school students qualified for free or reduced-price meals in 2011 according to an analysis released last week by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation.

That's up from only four states in 2000, and the study found all states have seen a rapid increase in student poverty during the last decade. Thirty-six states now have statewide poverty rates over 40 percent in schools, and Mississippi's poverty now tops 70 percent.

That deepening poverty likely will complicate already-fraught political discussions on how to educate American students, as prior research has shown students are significantly more at risk academically in schools with 40 percent or higher concentrations of poverty.

"Once you get above a majority of students in poverty it becomes increasingly difficult to deal with the problems they've got, and increasingly those problems come to define the direction of the whole school," said Steve T. Suitts, vice president of the foundation and the author of the study.

Urban areas in every part of the country now have majorities of students in poverty, from 54 percent in Western cities to 71 percent in Northeastern cities. But nationwide, two out of five students in the suburbs also is poor, and in the South and West, the proportion is closer to half.

Suitts said he found it "stunning" that three out of four districts in 15 states across the southern half of the country now have at least 50 percent poverty—and often much more.

"That pretty well means there's no place you can get away" from concentrated poverty, Suitts said. "These are the students whose fate will shape the future of the region—and right now these are low-performing students."

Multiple Stressors

While the recent Great Recession added to family hardships, Suitts said the rise in poverty is multidimensional.

The states hardest hit by poverty have also seen the fastest population growth, particularly but not just from immigration. While low-income parents have not been having more children, the overall population has greyed and higher-income parents have been having fewer children now compared to decades past, the report found. That's led to a higher proportion of schoolchildren in poverty.

For example, Suitts pointed to Arizona, the only state in the Southwest with a poverty rate under half, at 45.5 percent. While the state has immigrant and American Indian students—both of which historically have had higher rates of poverty—it has relatively few students overall compared to its large senior retired population.

'Particularly Vulnerable'

Natasha Ushomirsky, a senior policy and data analyst at the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for education equity issues, said she wasn't surprised by the sharp increase in poverty, and said neither education policy nor government supports have dealt with the change. "The reality is right now, our education system is set up in a way that takes the kids who have the least outside of school and gives them less inside of school, too," Ushomirsky said. "We spend less on them per pupil, expect less from them ... and give them less access to the best teachers."

As poverty has deepened nationwide, the Atlanta foundation also found most state supports for low-income children have not kept pace.

While poverty grew 40 percent in the Midwest and 33 percent in the South in the decade from 2001-2011, per-pupil expenditures grew 12 percent in each of those regions. In the West, per-student spending grew 7 percent while the poverty rate jumped by 31 percent. Only in the Northeast did spending growth, at 28 percent, keep ahead of student poverty growth, at 21 percent.

"What's remarkable about this is, this growth has been most pronounced in those states in the South and West where the only safety nets are federal safety nets," Suitts said. "It particularly makes these children vulnerable to the hazards of the economy."

The findings point to the need to identify more high-poverty schools and districts that are succeeding academically, and scale up their practices, Ushomirsky said. "Schools have to focus on what they can control rather than what they can't," she said. "It's not about reshuffling people; it's about raising the capacity of all the folks in the building and giving them the supports to provide the best instruction possible."

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