Students from low-income households have made up a rising share of the public school population for years, but their recent shift into the majority serves as an urgent signal to policymakers and schools to address the needs of poor children, and the challenges of educating them, researchers and educators say.
An analysis released last week by the Southern Education Foundation showed that public schools crossed a new, significant threshold in 2013, when a majority of the nation's nearly 50 million students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
Research shows that poor children often enter school behind other students academically, they often struggle to catch up, and they tend to lag behind their higher-income peers in areas like attendance.
"If you have a majority of your schoolchildren who are low-income, ... the nation as a whole is not going to fare well in the future as those kids struggle through school, as some drop out of school, and as those kids become the kind of adults who are not as well-educated as society needs," said Steve Suitts, a senior fellow at the Southern Education Foundation, an Atlanta-based organization that advocates for improved public schooling in that region.
The report's finding came in the same year that the nation's public schools reached another overlapping milestone: The U.S. Department of Education projects that students from racial and ethnic minority groups will outnumber non-Hispanic whites for the first time during the 2014-15 school year.
Educators said schools are confronting the shifts, in venues ranging from classrooms to lunchrooms, as they work to meet the academic and non-cognitive needs that can hinder achievement--often stretching strained resources to do so.
A Growing Trend
Meal eligibility status serves as a proxy indicator for poverty in schools, helping determine allotments of state and federal funds targeted toward low-income students.
Students are eligible for reduced-price meals if their household income is below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. They qualify for free meals if their household income is no more than 135 percent of that threshold. The federal poverty level for a family of four was $23,550 in 2013. That increased to $23,850 in 2015.
Children eligible for free and reduced-price lunches made up at least half of students in 21 states in 2013, according to the foundation's analysis of the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
And in 40 states, at least 40 percent of all public school students qualified for free and reduced-price meals, the analysis found.
States with the highest rates of low-income students were clustered in the South and the West. Mississippi had the highest rate with 71 percent low-income students, followed by 68 percent in New Mexico, 65 percent in Louisiana, and 61 percent in Arkansas and Oklahoma. The states with the lowest enrollments of low-income students were New Hampshire at 27 percent, North Dakota at 30 percent, and Vermont and Connecticut at 36 percent, the analysis found.
Nationwide, enrollment of low-income students has risen over time. In 1989, fewer than 32 percent of students were low-income, using the report's definition. By 2000, the rate had climbed to 38 percent, and it crossed into the high 40s after the recession of 2008.
"No longer can we consider the problems and needs of low-income students simply a matter of fairness," the Southern Education Foundation analysis said. "Their success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future."
For students in high-poverty schools to succeed, they need highly qualified teachers, which they are less likely to have than their peers in higher income areas, Mr. Suitts said. And those schools should also place a priority on after-school time and early literacy efforts, he said.
As low-income students increasingly cluster in suburban areas, more schools are facing the challenges of addressing concentrated poverty. Research shows that students from low-income families struggle even more academically when they are in schools with few higher-income peers.
In a speech earlier this month about his priorities for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said President Barack Obama's forthcoming fiscal 2016 budget request will include $2.7 billion for increased spending on federal K-12 programs, including $1 billion for Title I grants that fund school districts with large numbers of low-income students.
Some organizations are leaning on policymakers to expand the ways schools can spend Title I money.
The Arlington, Va.-based organization Communities in Schools, for example, wants schools to have the flexibility to spend Title I and other federal funds on integrated student supports. Also known as wraparound services, the supports are organized by school-based coordinators to meet students' academic and non-academic needs.
"This strategy can fundamentally remove the barriers that poverty presents to a student population," said Daniel J. Cardinali, the president of Communities in Schools, which helps schools coordinate such services.
Schools may work with food pantries to stock students' backpacks with non-perishable foods to eat on the weekends, when many poor children go hungry for lack of school-provided meals, he said. Or coordinators might work with nearby museums to take children on additional after-school trips to supplement out-of-class learning.
Daniel P. King, the superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, said poor students often have a more limited vocabulary when they start school, and tend to come from families with low levels of educational attainment, which can affect their engagement in the classroom.
About 89 percent of the district's 32,000 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, he said.
The district sends its teachers to day-care providers to teach them techniques to prepare students for kindergarten, making up for experiences they may miss out on at home, Mr. King said. High school students attend community college classes in the summer to help combat the "summer slump" or learning loss that poor students often experience, and the district works with the college to coordinate literacy training and classes for parents.
"At every level," Mr. King said, "it takes extra efforts and extra supports."