The Southern Education Foundation’s new report, A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South and Nation, brings attention to the fact that 48 percent of all school children across the nation live in low-income households (measured by the number of students who qualify for free or reduced price school lunch). In 17 states, clustered in the South and West, more than 50 percent of students are low-income.
Unfortunately, Texas is leading this trend. According to the Texas Education Agency, more than 60 percent of students in public and charter schools are economically disadvantaged. In the decade from 2001 to 2011 the number of economically disadvantaged Texas students grew by 44 percent—more than double the growth in total student enrollment. The number of economically disadvantaged students nation-wide grew by 32 percent during the same time period.
Using data from the National Assessment for Educational Progress test scores (a national standardized test that compares academic performance across states), the Foundation’s report identified a persistent achievement gap between economically disadvantaged children and their higher-income counterparts. This achievement gap is shown to be just as large or larger in private schools as it is in public schools.
Investing in public education is one of the most effective strategies for reducing poverty and strengthening the economy. However, education funding in Texas has not kept up with inflation and student growth. Many of the programs that target economically disadvantaged and at-risk students had their funding drastically cut or eliminated altogether. (See: Sizing Up the 2014-15 Texas Budget: Public Education for an in-depth look at Texas school finance.)
Earlier this year, the Texas education finance system was found unconstitutional and to be inadequate, inequitable, and inefficient. Hit hardest by this dysfunctional system are those who are poised to gain the most from a quality education and supportive educational services: economically disadvantaged and at-risk children. While the school finance case moves slowly through the courts, the future prosperity of Texas hangs in the balance.