Low-income children now represent a majority of students enrolled in public schools in the South, a new report by the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) finds. The 2009-10 school year marked the first time in modern history that a majority of students in public schools in the South were low-income students, defined as the number of students participating in the federal free- and reduced-lunch program. As public schools in North Carolina and other southern states are challenged with educating more low-income students – who typically need extra learning support and resources to succeed – education spending has failed to reflect this growing need and challenge.
Between the 2007-08 and 2011-12 school years, the percentage of low-income students in North Carolina’s public schools increased nearly 16 percent, based on free- and reduced- lunch data published by the NC Department of Public Instruction. During this time, average state funding per student declined 11 percent when adjusted for inflation.
The concentration of low-income students, particularly in Southern states, is not confined to particular areas within states, as highlighted in the SEF report. For 2011, the percentage of low-income students was a large and common outcome across North Carolina: cities (54%), towns outside of urban and suburban areas (57%), rural (49%), and suburban (43%). This pervasive reality illustrates that ensuring educational success for low-income students is a statewide challenge.
The success or failure of this new majority in North Carolina’s public schools has direct implications for the state’s future prospects. Low-income students are more likely to underperform on school tests, fall behind in school, fail to graduate, and never receive a college degree. As an increasing number of jobs in North Carolina are expected to require some level of postsecondary education, meeting this workforce demand requires that these students exit the state’s education pipeline prepared to compete in a competitive 21st century economy. Ensuring that this new majority of low-income students receive a quality public education is critical and warrants the attention of federal and state policymakers.