1. Opinion

Column: For too many students, poverty the norm

Published Oct. 18, 2013

A majority of public school students throughout the South and West are low-income for the first time in at least four decades, according to an analysis by the nation's oldest education philanthropy, the Southern Education Foundation.

Children from low-income families dominated classrooms in 13 states in the South and the four Western states with the largest populations in 2011. A decade earlier, just four states reported poor children as a majority. The 2008 recession, immigration and a high birthrate among low-income families have largely fueled the changes, said Steve Suitts, vice president of the foundation and an author of the study, "A New Majority."

The shift, which has broad implications, is based on the number of students from preschool through 12th grade who were eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals program in the 2010-11 school year. The meals program run by the Agriculture Department is a rough proxy for poverty; a family of four could earn no more than $40,793 a year to qualify in 2011.

These findings show that national efforts to improve public education have focused on the wrong problems, said Richard Rothstein of the Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. The rise of standardized testing, holding teachers accountable for students' performance and rewriting math and reading standards — none of them address poverty.

"If you take children who come to school from families with low literacy, who are not read to at home, who have poor health — all these social and economic problems — and just say that you're going to test children and have high expectations and their achievement will go up, it doesn't work," Rothstein said. "It's a failure."

Instead, said the foundation's Suitts, schools must adapt to the new low-income majorities. "We have an education system that continues to assume that most of our students are middle-class and have independent resources outside the schools in order to support their education," he said. "The trends and facts belie that assumption." Read the full report at

© 2013 Washington Post