According to data from the National Equity Atlas, one out of every five children in North Carolina attends a high-poverty school. Among students of color, that number is one in three. High-poverty schools are defined as schools in which 75 percent or more of the student body qualifies for the federal free or reduced priced lunch program. Because many high-poverty schools are faced with having limited resources to educate and care for students who often need extra supports, they often struggle to provide a quality education equal to their middle-class and wealthier counterparts.
The concentration of low-income students in high-poverty schools cannot simply be explained as a rise in poverty. Over the past decade, North Carolina has seen only a modest increase in the number of students who are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch. Prior to the beginning of the recession, just over 48 percent of students applied for the free or reduced lunch program in the 2007-08 school year. That number peaked at 58 percent in 2013 school year and has since decreased to 53 percent this past year. In the same time period, the percentage of students enrolled in high-poverty schools has nearly doubled.
Rather than an increase in the number of low-income households, concentrated high-poverty schools are often the result of economic and racial segregation. Rising income inequality and a deterioration of the social safety net has contributed to a decline in middle class and mixed-income neighborhoods. Although this trend in socioeconomic and racial segregation is not exclusive to North Carolina, it is particularly damaging in a state that ranks 43rd in the nation in per pupil funding. To make matters worse, there are large gaps in per pupil spending across counties; in 2012, the highest spending county spent $2,280 more per student than the lowest-spending county.
The gap in student achievement between low- and high-income students has grown. A large part of this expanding achievement gap is explained by the increasing segregation of schools. If we do not address the proliferation of high-poverty schools, many of our students will leave high school unprepared for post-secondary education and underqualified to participate in the workforce.
While a the achievement gap and an unprepared workforce are real problems, the reality is that the increased concentration of students in high-poverty schools is only a symptom of a larger issue. When we fail to make adequate public investments and address systemic barriers, inequality expands and opportunity shrinks. And far too often, children, especially children of color, pay the costs.